The hidden cost of food inflation—compromising safety for affordability

Food safety vs. cost

The intersection of rising food costs and consumer health safety is emerging as a critical issue in today’s economy.

Recent research from Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, in partnership with Caddle, provides alarming insights into how financial pressures are influencing food safety behaviours among Canadians, with significant public health impacts.

The study surveyed 9,109 Canadians, revealing that 58% of respondents are more inclined to eat food near or beyond its “best before” date due to economic pressures from rising food prices. This trend is not marginal but indicative of a broad shift in consumer behaviour driven by financial necessity.

Alarmingly, 23.1% of these individuals consistently consume such foods, and an additional 38.6% do so frequently.

This risky behavior has direct health consequences: 20% of those surveyed reported sickness related to consuming food products past their “best before” date.

The data becomes even more concerning among Millennials, where 41% have experienced foodborne illnesses under similar circumstances. This demographic detail not only underscores the vulnerability of younger consumers but also highlights a generational divide in risk exposure and financial stability.

Despite these results being self-reported, the figures are alarmingly high.

Approximately 50.1% of Canadians acknowledge inflation has forced them to compromise on food safety, adopting strategies like freezing perishables or extending the usability of leftovers beyond typical safety margins. While these practices are resourceful, they can potentially lead to an increase in foodborne diseases, a concern substantiated by the reported incidences of illness.

The implications of these findings extend beyond individual households, suggesting a systemic issue that intertwines economic policies with public health outcomes.

Although food spending at the grocery store has decreased compared to 2018 and 2019, possibly indicating Canadians are wasting less food at home, this may also imply they are taking greater risks with their health.

As Canadians adjust their eating habits to cope with financial pressures, the need for enhanced risk communication policies and informing the public about how to manage risks at home is more critical than ever. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency suggests about four million Canadians contract a foodborne illness each year, a number that this report suggests may rise as food inflation becomes a widespread issue.

Food in Canada is generally safer compared to other nations. However, the consumer remains the most critical risk manager within the entire supply chain. While expiry dates are non-negotiable, “best before” dates do not mean “bad after.”

Nevertheless, consumers must carefully assess whether a product is safe to eat, considering their ability to cope with potential risks. Making the wrong decision could result in missing work and incurring additional costs.

Perhaps someday consumers will have access to home technology that can detect the safety level of the food they are about to eat in real time?

This research from Dalhousie University highlights an urgent need for policies that address the interplay between economic pressures and public health, emphasizing the necessity of robust consumer education on food safety in times of economic strain.

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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