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Less-than-fresh food costing Canadians north of $500M: Study

Agri-Food Analytics Lab report looks at the extent and cost of ‘shelflation’
Rotten asparagus spears being thrown away into food waste recycling bin. Food waste concept

Ongoing supply issues are leading to another mounting problem: food waste. And it’s costing Canadians big time.

The Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, in partnership with Angus Reid, recently conducted a study on “shelflation.” Coined by the lab’s director, Sylvain Charlebois, the term is defined as: “when supply chain issues lead to overripe or less fresh food products making their way onto store shelves.”

READ: Supply chain crunch leaves produce sector ripe with challenges

In a survey of 1,500 Canadians, 63% said they had to throw away food prematurely at least once in the last six months. Category wise, the highest percentage was in produce (45%), followed by dairy (31%), bakery products (27%), and meat (17%).

The price tag for all that trashed food? Anywhere between $305 million and $545 million, according to the researchers’ estimates.

“The most obvious impact for consumers is they’re spending more on items they’re not able to use. And with food price inflation at 6.5%, it’s just not affordable for Canadians to be doing that now,” says Janet Music, research associate at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab. “The second consideration is the environmental cost. While there is a human cost to food waste—meaning a lot of wasted effort, time and money—it’s not environmentally sound to be throwing away that amount of food.”

The report notes that while deterioration of the quality and freshness of food products can happen at any time, the researchers suspect the pandemic and global supply chain challenges have made things worse in recent months. “When supply chains aren’t working optimally, the chain will rob consumers of some needed shelf life at home,” the report states.

The report also looked at regional differences. The highest percentage of Canadians who tossed food prematurely was in the Atlantic region, at 70%. The lowest was in Saskatchewan at 42%.

In terms of frequency, in the last six months 11% of Canadians had to throw away food once, 24% twice, 43% three or four times, and 22% at least five times or more.

While supply chain issues may be the culprit for less-than-fresh foods on shelves today, consumers can help prevent it all going to landfill. Music says there’s a need for more consumer education about produce, for example, how to get certain fruits to ripen or what to look for when they’re going bad.

She notes that in other categories, expiration dates take the guesswork out for consumers, so they know, for example, a carton of milk will be fresh for two more weeks.

“There’s no such thing on produce. And consumers probably don’t know in some cases where along the life of that product it actually is,” says Music. “People need to start planning a little better and they are going to have to do that by default because it’s so expensive now to buy food.”

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