All eyes are on inflation these days, especially at the grocery store. 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 happening with food prices, we turned to Statistics Canada for more details. But without fanfare, we just learned that the federal agency is changing the way it monitors food prices. The change, which takes place in May, could not come at a worse time.
The year 2022 will probably be one for the record books. We have barely seen a quarter of the year and most of us already know that the cost of feeding us 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 affects us. Starting in May, though, that likely won’t be possible.
Statistics Canada posted a note to readers at the bottom of its monthly Consumer Price Index report. Few people will have seen it, and it usually takes agencies like Statistics Canada months and sometimes years to plan for such a change.
In the coming weeks, Statistics Canada will completely remove the database containing the average prices of 52 products sold in Canadian grocery stores. Essentially, the 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 is likely to better reflect the modern diet.
There is no doubt that this change was necessary as the existing product list was quite outdated.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. The fish and shellfish industry is huge in Canada, but canned salmon was the only fish that Statistics Canada tracked for the last 25 years.
The fruit and vegetable category also had only a handful of options, and juice had one option: orange. The vegetable protein category was not represented at all. But plant proteins are consumed by a growing number of Canadians.
Also, the updated Canada Food Guide is over three years old.
According to the Statistics Canada note, once the new list is published, we will not be able to go back beyond March 2022 to access food prices. Therefore, it will not be possible to obtain a historical perspective of the new food basket.
Removing this historical perspective essentially removes the ability to better understand how food costs have impacted our lives over the years. Money spent on food influences 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.
That makes Statistics Canada’s change quite disappointing.
Interestingly, it appears that the agency won’t even create two food baskets in parallel so the data can overlap. In the United States and elsewhere, federal agencies do not normally delete entire databases. At least they don’t make them inaccessible to the public.
Statistics Canada has been criticized over the years for its inaccuracy when it comes to mapping inflation, especially food inflation. This change raises questions about why and why the announcement was so low-key.
But the agency also said it would add more data points. A larger database is good news.
However, this move is generally not great news for Canadians. We can only believe that StatsCan is admitting that its reading of food inflation in recent years has been inaccurate and that its approach needed a complete overhaul.
But Statistics Canada won’t necessarily admit it, and really can’t, given the way such an announcement would be received.
Still, Canadians want to know how current food prices compare to last year and even two years ago. I suggest you keep your weekly brochures, which may be the only way you’ll now need to know what’s happening with food prices in Canada.
Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agrifood Analysis Laboratory and Professor of Food Policy and Distribution at Dalhousie University.