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Canadians may want to shop more often to beat 'shelflation'

By now, you've heard of shrinkflation. It is the illusion of buying the same amount of product when it has in fact shrunk over time. You may be less familiar with the term "shelflation." This is when supply chain issues result in overripe or less fresh food products hitting store shelves, robbing consumers from some needed shelf life at home.

According to a recent poll by Dalhousie University and Caddle, in the past 12 months, 41% of Canadians have thrown away milk because it went sour before its due date. Of that group, 38.5% have done it at least twice, and 22.8% have done it three to five times. Throwing away spoiled products before due dates does happen from time to time, but such a high number is quite unusual. Anecdotally, many Canadians of late have noticed some produce isn’t as fresh as it used to be, and will rot much sooner. There’s no specific data on this yet, and I suspect many Canadians have not noticed anything different. Snowstorms, labour shortages, procurement problems related to certain ingredients or even packaging issues can affect perishable foods, pandemic or not.

Shelflation is indeed quite common. Delays due to weather, natural disasters (like what we witnessed in British Columbia last year), labour disputes, massive recalls, or equipment failures can disrupt a supply chain’s efficiency. Cold chains that are responsible for keeping perishables fresh from farm to store can also be breached for one reason or another. Mechanical breakdowns, hindrances outside the warehouse, or unusually warm temperatures, for example, can shorten the life of or even spoil products before a shipment reaches the store. Perishables need to be maintained at refrigerated temperatures and high relative humidity, conditions that are not routinely met along the supply chain. Food distribution is complex.

But the pandemic has clearly disrupted global food supply chains in more ways than one, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more shelflation happening. Asking food companies to operate with fewer staff will eventually result in delays and, of course, more waste. And waste at home will certainly contribute to higher food costs for everyone. The average family of four will spend $14,000 on food annually, and at least 50% of that budget is dedicated to perishables. Wasting a good portion of that can be costly.

The shelf life for highly perishable foods is set rather conservatively to ensure food safety. Expiry dates or best before dates are critical to the fabric of our food safety system, and modern technologies have done wonders to prolong the shelf life of many of our products. In store, assessing the state of any food with expiry dates is close to impossible due to air-tight packaging. So, naturally, we focus on dates. We constantly go for products where the best before or use-by dates are as late as possible. For produce, we’ll go for products that are appropriately ripe based on when we think the product will be consumed. But consumers can only go by the information provided at the point of purchase without knowing the product’s history before it reached the store.

Food waste is a major challenge in our economy. In Canada, about 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year. The most common causes of perishable food waste at a retailer are overstocking, unpredictable consumer demand, inappropriate quality control, and product handling. Compounded by issues up the food chain, retailers don’t stand much of a chance-- putting the sole blame on them is misplaced.

Shelflation can be dodged by approaching grocery shopping a little differently. Given the current food supply chain woes, grocery shopping only once a week isn't ideal, but visiting the store two or three times a week may help consumers save money and waste less. 

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