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Financial pressures and inflation are leading Canadians to cut corners on food safety, putting their health at risk

Sylvain CharleboisThe 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, which surveyed 9,109 Canadians, revealed that 58 percent 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 percent of these individuals consistently consume such foods, and an additional 38.6 percent do so frequently.

This risky behaviour has direct health consequences: 20 percent of those surveyed reported sickness related to consuming food products past their “best before” date. The data is even more worrisome among Millennials, with 41 percent having experienced foodborne illnesses from eating food products after their “best before” date. This demographic detail not only underscores the vulnerability of younger consumers but also highlights a generational divide in risk exposure and financial stability.

food safety canada financial pressures inflation

Photo by Tamas Pap

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

Approximately 50.1 percent of Canadians acknowledge that 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. While food spending at the grocery store has decreased compared to 2018 and 2019, possibly indicating that Canadians are wasting less food at home, this may also imply that 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 that 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 in the 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 to detect the safety level of the food they are about to eat in real-time.

Our research 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.

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

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