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Canada’s Food Price Report COVID-19 Update

For Immediate Release – March 31, 2020

Food prices expected to rise 4% in 2020, with vegetables and bakery leading the way

HALIFAX – Both Dalhousie University and the University of Guelph are issuing an update on our forecast for food prices for 2020. In December 2019, the report’s authors forecasted that food prices would increase by anywhere between 2 percent to 4 percent, with meat being the one category which would increase by 4 to 6 percent.

Considering the current COVID-19 crisis, and based on our latest analysis, we do not believe the overall forecast for food prices in 2020 will change. We expect food prices to increase by no more than 4%, as forecasted in December 2019, despite the COVID-19 epidemic. But the food retail and processing sectors are under extreme pressure to change food safety practices, to make customers feel safer. These new protocols will require more work and more staff. Due to the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia, the Canadian Dollar will be one factor to watch closely, as it is already affecting food prices in some categories. Also, online purchases and delivery will likely increase the cost of food over time.

2020 Food Price Forecasts

Food Categories Anticiapted Changes (%)

(December 2019)

Anticipated Changes (%)

(Revised)

Bakery 0% – 2%
Dairy 1% – 3% Unchanged
Fruits 1.5% – 3.5% Unchanged
Meat 4% – 6% Unchanged
Other 0% – 2% Unchanged
Restaurants 2% – 4%
Seafood 2% – 4% Unchanged
Vegetables 2% – 4%
Total Increase in Food Prices  2% – 4% Unchanged

Canadian Dollar and commodities

We are expecting some categories to be affected by new market conditions and COVID-19. The forecasts for Bakery and Vegetables are being revised upward. We are expecting menu prices at restaurants to drop significantly, due the substantial disruption the sector is experiencing.  There is also the possibility of Fruit prices slightly decreasing as the Canadian harvest begins in summer.

Most analysts agree that the oil price war is only beginning. With cheap oil abounding, this will impact the entire agrifood market, from farmgate to plate. Due to lower gas prices, the cost of transportation will drop as new contract terms are being negotiated. However, the Loonie is getting hit hard, given its resilient link with oil which will impact food prices more quickly. It’s currently at its lowest level in many years, affecting our importers’ buying power. A weakened Canadian Dollar versus the Greenback led to the cauliflower situation we experienced a few years ago. If the Dollar drops further, many items we import will cost more, from produce to canned goods, to many other processed foods we purchase regularly.

The current COVID-19 pandemic and the oil price war is causing a massive sell-off in equity and crude oil markets, and to a much lesser extent, in agricultural commodities. These are just the latest occurrences that are keeping a lid on potential price rallies for agriculture. Farmers hoping to increase returns saw their expectations vanish. Around the world, harvests are strong, and nothing is moving up, as many commodities are going sideways or down, due to weak demand. The same can be said in the livestock industry, as hog and cattle prices are also dropping, due to weak global demand. In other words, most farmers are looking at an average year, at best. This means we no longer expect farmgate prices to become a higher pressure point on food retail prices as we expected in December.

Meat prices are expected to go up by no more than 6 percent, as predicted in December 2019. We have received reports of meat prices going up dramatically in some parts of the country. Some reports suggest prices went up by 10 to 15 percent. We believe, however, that certain cuts which would normally be sold in food service are being sold, at a premium, at retail. Consumers should not expect dramatic increases at retail at this time.

Store experience changing

The costs of complying with customers’ new expectations are increasing. A number of Canadians are unable to leave their homes, and many others now actually fear going to the grocery store. In fact, 76% of Canadians now consider a visit to the grocery store as an inherent risk to their health. Food safety and public health protocols are changing as grocers are attempting to change store experiences by setting up barriers between employees and customers and asking customers to adhere to strict physical distancing while visiting the facility. Customers are asked not to touch products unless they intend to purchase them. Security to control traffic in stores, and store cleaning protocols have been enhanced across the country, which has also increased the cost of operating a store.

To prevent unnecessary stockpiling, grocers are now posting signs limiting the number of items customers can purchase per visit. Rationing is appropriate, given these unprecedented circumstances and consumers should expect the practice to continue throughout the crisis.

Online ordering surge

According to a recent survey, 9 percent of Canadians who have never ordered food online are now doing so. This was a shock for most grocers, who were not ready to absorb that level of online traffic. Customers are expected to wait anywhere between 3 to 7 days for their order. Since Amazon acquired Whole Foods in 2017, most grocers were deploying a more aggressive online strategy, but COVID-19 happened too quickly, which is why many are challenged by the sudden surge of online ordering. We do expect grocery stores to realign resources in order to address the backlog, but delivery costs will be mostly downloaded to consumers.

Food service

The food service industry is being decimated as a result of COVID-19. Restaurants in Canada normally generate over $90 billion in sales a year. Almost overnight, the sector’s ability to generate revenues beyond delivery or pick-up was halted. Extracting service margins and the impact of preimmunized products found in the service sector, we estimate that $40 to $50 billion worth of food is now purchased through food retail. That is a massive amount of food that grocers must sell, in addition to their regular business and new online challenges. We are expecting to continue to receive reports of empty shelves, but the situation will likely improve.

Costing pressures

Wages across the sector have increased in recent weeks. Most grocers have made similar announcements to this effect. Employees are being retrained and are requested to conduct new tasks related to sanitation. Salaries have increased by anywhere between 5% to 15%. We estimate that more than 250,000 employees working in more than 5,000 stores have received a pay increase since the start of the outbreak. Most employers have committed to increasing salaries until early May, but that could be extended depending on how recruitment becomes a challenge amid the outbreak and beyond. This will certainly increase operational costs.

Fewer promotions

There have been reports of unjustified price increases across the country. In times of extreme anxiety, consumers are quick to take to social media with examples of exaggerated pricing for specific food products. While the possibility for a grocer to increase prices for no apparent reason exists, “price-gouging”, as labelled by many, is highly unlikely. Consumers may see the price of a product increase dramatically, but the same product, or an alternative, in most cases, can often be found in the same store or at another location.

Weekly flyers appear to have shrunk across the country; fewer promotions are available to Canadians. This is likely due to the fact that grocers are devoting most of their energy to stocking shelves, making sure stores are full. We do expect the number of food products sold at a discount to be reduced over the next few months, until the COVID-19 crisis subsides.

Forecasting Methods

Our forecasting methods were updated to incorporate new economic data as soon as it becomes available. Fluctuations in oil prices, currency exchange rates, and other market indicators since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic are reflected in our revised forecasts.

For more information, please visit the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University’s website, https://www.dal.ca/sites/agri-food.html or the Arrell Food Institute’s website at https://arrellfoodinstitute.ca/

Team Dalhousie and Guelph

Sylvain Charlebois, Scientific Director, Agri-Food Analytics Lab
Faculty of Agriculture, Dalhousie University
sylvain.charlebois@dal.ca
902-222-4142 (cell)

Simon Somogyi, Arrell Chair in Business of Food
Arrell Food Institute & Gordon s. Lang School of Business & Economics, University of Guelph
ssomogyi@uguelph.ca
519-710-0842 (cell)

Graham Taylor, Canada Research Chair in Machine Learning & CIFAR AI Chair
School of Engineering, University of Guelph & Vector Institute
gwtaylor@uoguelph.ca

Ethan Jackson, Post-doctoral Research Fellow
School of Engineering, University of Guelph & Vector Institute
ethanj@uoguelph.ca

Janet Music, Research Program Coordinator
Agri-Food Analytics Lab
Faculty of Management, Dalhousie University
jlmusic@dal.ca
902-494-2471

 

The data for the report is available upon request.