CHARLEBOIS: Statistics Canada’s silent mea culpa

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All eyes are on inflation these days, especially prices at the grocery store.

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We all need to spend on necessities, but food is the one thing we need every day, and the food choices we make are very important to our budget.

To find out what’s going on with food prices, most of us turn to Statistics Canada for more details. But now, without fanfare, we’ve learned that the federal agency is changing its approach in May to how it monitors food prices, and the change couldn’t have come at the worst time.

The year 2022 will probably be a year for the record books. We are only a quarter of the way through the year, and most of us already know that the cost of feeding ourselves will increase dramatically. Traditionally, Statistics Canada would tell us how food prices have progressed over the years to get a better idea of ​​how food inflation is affecting us. Starting in May, though, that likely won’t be possible.

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Statistics Canada’s non-detailed announcement is published in a note to readers at the bottom of its monthly Consumer Price Index report. The location of this note means that few people will have noticed it, and that is why most of us do not notice it. Usually these things take months, sometimes years for agencies like Statistics Canada to plan, but still.

In the coming weeks, Statistics Canada will completely remove the database containing the average prices of 52 products sold in Canadian grocery stores. The federal agency is essentially turning the page on more than 25 years of data to instead establish an expanded list of products whose prices will be collected every month. This new list is likely to better reflect the modern diet.

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There is no doubt that this change was necessary as the list of products was quite outdated. In fact, even if you go back 25 years, the list was pretty much irrelevant to most of us. For example, the only fish on the list was canned salmon. Fish and shellfish are a big industry for Canada, and canned salmon was the only fish that Statistics Canada has been tracking for the past 25 years.

The produce category also had only a handful of options, for example, juice only had one option: orange. While the vegetable protein category was not fully represented. Today, plant proteins are consumed by a growing number of Canadians. The new food guide is over three years old and most of the foods on the current list are consumed to a much lesser extent by Canadians today.

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However, according to the note from Statistics Canada, once the new list comes out, we will not be able to go back beyond March 2022 to access food prices. This means that it will not be possible to reach any historical perspective on the new food basket.

Removing this historical perspective essentially leaves us without the ability to better understand how food is impacting our lives over the years. Money spent on food will influence lifestyles, and our socioeconomic status and historical reference points have always been useful to all of us, including other branches of government, economists, and researchers. Making the change from Statistic Canada quite disappointing.

It appears that the federal agency will not even create two food baskets in parallel, so the data may overlap. so rare. In the United States and elsewhere, federal agencies generally don’t necessarily delete entire databases, or at least make them inaccessible to the public.

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Statistics Canada has been criticized over the years for its inaccuracy with inflation, especially food inflation. This new change makes one wonder about the reasons and why his announcement was so silent. In the very subtle announcement, the agency also mentioned that they will be adding more data points, which is good news. You need a bigger database no matter what.

Overall, this move is not great news for Canadians. With this change, we can only believe that the federal agency is admitting that its reading of food inflation in recent years was incorrect and that its approach needed a complete overhaul. However, Statistics Canada will not necessarily admit this. Well, to be fair, it really can’t, given how such an announcement would be received at home and abroad.

Still, Canadians will want to know how much more expensive certain foods are compared to last year, or even two years ago. For this to happen now, the only suggestion is to keep your weekly brochures somewhere, as that will be the only way to really know what has happened to food prices in Canada.

— Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Professor and Senior Director of the Dalhousie University Agri-Food Analysis Laboratory and co-host of The Food Professor podcast.

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