Supply chain woes compromise food freshness at stores

Shelflation leaves consumers with a sour taste

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Sylvain CharleboisYou have likely heard of shrinkflation, in which companies reduce the quantity of an item they sell you without changing the price. This packaging strategy has been going on for years and creates the illusion you’re buying the same amount of product.

And when supply chains aren’t working optimally, food products reach store shelves either less fresh than usual or a little too ripe, robbing consumers of some needed shelf life at home. This is called ‘shelflation.’

According to a recent poll by Dalhousie University and the app Caddle, 41 per cent of Canadians have thrown away milk in the past 12 months because it went sour before its due date. And 38.5 per cent of respondents have done so at least twice; for 22.8 per cent of those surveyed, it has happened three to five times.

Throwing away spoiled products before due dates has always happened occasionally, but such a high number of occurrences is quite unusual. Anecdotally, many Canadians have lately noticed some of their produce isn’t as fresh as it used to be, so it rots much sooner.

There’s no specific data on this and I suspect many Canadians haven’t noticed anything different.

But shelflation is quite common and pandemics aren’t the only way a product’s shelf life can be compromised. Delays due to weather, natural disasters (like we witnessed in British Columbia last year), labour disputes, massive recalls or equipment failures can disrupt a supply chain’s efficiency.

Cold supply chains – set at 2C to 8C – keep perishables fresh from farm to store. But they can be breached for one reason or another. Mechanical breakdowns, hindrances outside the warehouse or unusually warm temperatures, for example, can shorten the life of or even spoil products before a shipment reaches the store. Perishables need to be refrigerated and kept in high humidity, and those conditions aren’t routinely met along the supply chain. Food distribution is complex.

The pandemic has clearly disrupted global food supply chains in more ways than one, so we shouldn’t be surprised to see more shelflation. Asking food companies to operate with less staff will eventually bring delays and, of course, more waste. And waste at home will certainly contribute to higher food costs for everyone. The average Canadian family of four will spend about $14,000 on food annually, and at least 50 per cent of that budget is dedicated to perishables. Wasting a good portion of that can be costly.

The shelf life of a product is the time between production and the use-by date. The shelf life for highly perishable foods is set rather conservatively to ensure food safety. Expiry dates or best-before dates are critical to the fabric of our food safety system, and modern technologies have done wonders to prolong the shelf life of many of our products.

In the store, assessing the state of any food with expiry dates is close to impossible due to air-tight packaging. So we zone in on the dates on the packaging. At the grocery store, we essentially buy time along with our food. We will constantly go for products where the best-before or use-by dates are as late as possible.

For produce, we go for items that are appropriately ripe based on when we think it will be consumed. But consumers can only go by the information provided at the point of purchase, without knowing the product’s history before it reached the store.

Food waste is a significant challenge in our economy. In Canada, about 2.2 million tonnes of edible food is wasted each year. The most common causes of perishable food waste are retailer overstocking, unpredictable consumer demand, inappropriate quality control and product handling. These factors are compounded by issues up the food chain and retailers don’t stand much of a chance. So putting the blame solely on the retailer can be misplaced.

Freshness and quality of perishables will obviously vary, depending on where you live and where you shop. Some regions are better served than others. But unlike shrinkflation, shelflation can be dodged.

Going to the grocery store once a week or once every two weeks may not be ideal, especially with current food supply chain woes. Visiting the store two or three times a week and buying enough for the next two to three days may help you waste less.

We just need to approach our grocery shopping a little differently.

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

Sylvain is one of our contributors. For interview requests, click here.


The opinions expressed by our columnists and contributors are theirs alone and do not inherently or expressly reflect the views of our publication.

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Sylvain Charlebois

Sylvain Charlebois is a Canadian researcher and professor in food distribution and food policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He is Dalhousie's past Dean of the Faculty of Management and is a professor and Director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab.

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