Canada’s food costs not hard to swallow

Food unites us all and Canada is certainly not immune to global pressures affecting food systems. Food price hikes these days have no borders, or so it seems. Prices have gone up in Canada, but also in other countries.

While summer is a great time to get reacquainted with our BBQ, it’s also a time when many travel overseas and return with food price and eating habit anecdotes from wherever they were visiting.

Since food prices are top-of-mind these days, the temptation to stop in a foreign grocery store is too strong to resist.

However, by doing so, we either feel fortunate or downright mortified when looking at price tags abroad.

If London was your destination this summer, you likely noticed that prices of our dairy products are exorbitant. Milk is at least 18 percent more expensive in Canada than in London.

With cheese, it gets worse. Canadian popular cheeses are at least 61 percent more expensive.

If your summer trek brought you to New York, beef prices were likely the shocker for you. Prices are at least half of what they are currently in Canada, although chicken seems to be more expensive in the city that never sleeps.

If Berlin or Paris were places you visited, a typical food basket would cost 40 percent less there than it would here in our own country. Vegetables, fruits, beer, wines and many other processed products seem significantly cheaper abroad.

On the other hand, prices for tomatoes, granola bars and ketchup seem cheaper here than in other countries. Salmon is, compared with other markets, less pricy here, which to a certain extent makes sense, given our wealth of fresh and seawater.

But oranges — yes, oranges — seem less expensive here than in other countries. Quick and unscientific comparisons have clear limitations, however, because of seasonality and packaging differences among nations.  

Nonetheless, if you are coming back from the United States or even Europe, you may be under the impression that food prices in Canada are much higher. If so, you may be partially right, if you only look at prices at retail. Underneath of it all is a paradox. Affordable foods often come at a cost to taxpayers as well. With an overly generous Farm Bill in the U.S. and high agricultural subsidies in Europe, consumers are also requested to pay income tax for access to affordable foods.

As an example, agricultural subsidies currently represent over 40 percent of the EU budget. In Canada, farm subsidies remain relatively low when compared with other industrialized countries.

In addition, expenditure on food should be considered in relative terms. When looking at the percentage of household budgets spent on food, Canada is a unique category. Americans spend barely 6.6 percent of their budgets on food.

Second is the U.K. at 9.10 percent. Canada, at 9.6 percent, is at the top end of this select group of countries where household expenditures on food do not exceed 10 percent. In other countries, people spend more of their money on food.

For example, Germany is at 10.5 percent, France at 13.2 percent and Turkey at 22 percent. Mexico is almost a whopping 25 percent. This means Canadians spend a great deal on other things than food, which reflects our reasonably high quality of life in Canada.

In essence, from a food distribution point of view, Canada remains an exceptional case. With only 35 million people living in one of the world’s vastest countries, most have access to reasonably priced foods.

If you add to this picture our Nordic climate, Canada’s food distributors have, over the years, created a crop of consumers with incredibly high expectations. Some would even venture as far as stating that expectations are now overly unrealistic.

No matter where you are from, most citizens in the industrialized world believe food prices are much too high.

In Canada, uniting our close attention to price hikes with a better appreciation of our plentiful bounty of food can go a long way.

With Canadian food prices, we may think the grass is greener on the other side, but ours still needs tending to. In other words, invest in your own nutrition and the value you get out of your food can only go up.    

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor at the University of Guelph’s college of business and economics.

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