Why Statistics Canada is changing how it monitors food prices

All eyes are on inflation these days, especially on prices at the grocery store. Food is the one thing we need every single day, and the food choices we make matter a great deal to our budget.

To know what is going on with food prices, most of us turn to Statistics Canada for details. But, in a note posted at the bottom of its monthly Consumer Price Index report, the federal agency quietly announced it would change how it monitors food prices starting in May, and this change couldn't happen at a worse time.

Traditionally, Statistics Canada would tell us how food prices have progressed over the years in order to have a better sense of how food inflation is affecting us. Over the next few weeks, the database containing the average prices of 52 products sold in Canadian grocery stores will be completely removed by Statistics Canada. The federal agency is turning the page on more than 25 years of data to establish an expanded list of products whose prices will be collected every month. This new list will likely be more reflective of the modern-day diet.

There is no doubt this change was needed as the list of products was quite dated. In fact, even if you go back 25 years, the list was quite immaterial for most of us. For example, seafood is a huge industry for Canada, and canned salmon was the only fish that Statistics Canada was monitoring the last 25 years. The produce category only had a handful of options, the only option in the juice category was orange, and the vegetable protein category was nonexistent. Today, vegetable proteins are consumed by a growing number of Canadians.

However, once the new list comes out, Statistics Canada says we can't go back beyond March 2022 to access food prices. This means attaining any historical perspective on the new food basket will be impossible. Removing this historical perspective leaves us without the ability to make better sense of how food has impacted our lives over the years. Money spent on food influences lifestyles and socio-economic status, and historical points of reference have been helpful to us all, including other government branches, economists and researchers. Statistic Canada’s change is quite disappointing.

It appears the federal agency isn't creating two food baskets in parallel so data can overlap. So odd. Typically, in the United States and elsewhere, federal agencies keep their databases or at least make them accessible to the public.

Statistics Canada has been criticized over the years for its inaccuracy with inflation, especially with food inflation. In the very subtle announcement, the agency mentioned it would be adding more data points, which is good news. It needs a larger database no matter what, but with this change, we can only believe the federal agency is admitting its reading of food inflation over the last few years was inaccurate and its approach needed a complete overhaul. Yet, Statistics Canada won’t necessarily admit it.

Canadians will want to know how the price on certain food items have changed year over year. For this to occur now, the only suggestion is for shoppers to keep their weekly flyers because it will be the only way for them to know what has happened to food prices in Canada.

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