Perception versus reality when it comes to food prices

Some foods now cheaper

Four years ago, we were all in lockdown.

It was total confusion. With empty shelves, many wondered if Canada was facing a food shortage and if prices would be affected, of course. With varying health restrictions from region to region worldwide, supply chains were heavily strained.

Almost two years later, it was a catastrophe in Ukraine. Russia’s illegal invasion pushed the prices of most agri-food products to record levels. The price of wheat reached $12 per bushel for the first time in history. Our food inflation rate reached 11% over the year before, much to the dismay of consumers here and elsewhere.

Some believe food prices have doubled since 2020. Well, if you believe Statistics Canada’s data, prices have increased by 21% since March 2020, across all categories. It’s not double, but 21% is a lot.

Due to price volatility, many people feel like the increase is closer to 100% and the product that has increased the most is olive oil at 83%, followed by cantaloupes at 76%. Those two categories have been affected by production issues related to climate change. Cantaloupes were even affected by a major recall a few months ago.

Vegetable oil has increased by 72%, canola oil by 51%, margarine by 67%, and strawberries by 58%. All products are more expensive than in 2020, but there are exceptions.

Some will be surprised to learn some products are cheaper than they were in March 2020. Almonds are 19% cheaper than in 2020. Pork shoulders are 14% cheaper than in March 2020 and pork ribs are 13% cheaper. Canned tuna is also less expensive, by 14%. Even chicken breasts, according to Statistics Canada, are 3% cheaper.

A year ago, a viral photo of expensive chicken breasts angered everyone, leading to a social media campaign condemning possible grocer abuses. It was panic, or almost.

Products roughly the same price are whole chicken, spinach, canned salmon, the famous banana, pears, and tomatoes.

If all this is hard to believe, perhaps it is because our trust in Statistics Canada is not very high.

Despite the data, it is certainly not what people feel when paying for groceries. While some food categories may have some immunity to inflation, likely, our perceptions are influenced by price volatility.

Let’s look at the standard deviations of prices over the past four years. Since March 2020, the category with the highest standard deviation is beef. That’s not surprising. Depending on the cut, the standard deviation varies between four and five. The standard deviation of food prices can tell us how much food prices vary compared to their average.

Salmon has a standard deviation of more than four. Chicken breasts and vegetable oils also have high standard deviations compared to the average, as do margarine, tomatoes, peppers, white rice, and mayonnaise.

Interestingly, meats have increased about as much as plant protein products like hummus, tofu, lentils, and dry beans, but popular perception is meat counter prices have skyrocketed more than elsewhere in the store.

Perception often deceives us.

Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

This article is written by or on behalf of an outsourced columnist and does not necessarily reflect the views of Castanet.

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