Shucking Oysters: Paper Bag Blues

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Whenever one of us comes back from the local grocery store, my partner and I like to play the, “How much did this bag of groceries cost?” game. Ever the optimist, I didn’t do well at first. But now, my strategy is to add $30 to $40 to what I think the price should be and I win the game often.

Last year, our food costs reached the highest in 41 years. Since 2020, we all are aware how pretty much everything has gone up. (Prices and emotions.) It’s crazy. Gas and other commodities go up and down, but groceries seem to go up and stay up. 

Since the beginning of the pandemic, they blamed supply chain disruptions, labour shortages, changes in consumer purchasing patterns, poor weather in growing regions, higher input costs, higher wages, and so on. Why it’s hitting us with such impact, is that these conditions and pressures all happened at once. The perfect storm.

Canada’s Food Price Report for 2024, warns that staples like produce, meat and baked goods will still go up and up. Dairy and fruit only 3%, while seafood will be 5% more expensive. One can imagine what a whole crab will cost next year. Do I hear $53? Baked goods have already increased 8% last year, next year add another 7%. Do I hear fruit smoothies for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

We’re all changing our grocery shopping habits. We’re shopping at more stores for bargains and buying more generic store brands. At one time, the Comox Valley Record was fire starter in our household. Now, I obsessively read the inserts to see what’s on sale before we go into town. I used to be embarrassed caught shopping at Costco versus let’s say, Edible Island. These days, when we go to Costco, we see at least one person from Hornby. It’s become a badge of honour. Bulk is cheaper.

Meat prices are expected to increase up to 7% next year, above the increases in 2023. Last week, two organic chicken breasts from Thrifty’s were for sale for $24! It’s insane. And if you think becoming a vegetarian will be cheaper, think again. The Food Report indicates little relief by switching to steamed veggies and rice for dinner.* “With produce, and in particular vegetables, we are expecting a weaker dollar which will actually make imports more expensive,” lead researcher Sylvain Charlebois said.

 

Across Canada, food price inflation from 2021 to 2022 averaged about 10.5%, from a high of 11% in Quebec to a low of 9.2% in BC. Before you start celebrating, a recent study says BC has the highest cost of living in Canada. In the Westland Insurance study, BC topped the rankings as it was the third-most expensive or higher in buying and renting real estate, an airline ticket, public transportation, dental services, healthcare, clothing and hotel accommodation. (The average house price in BC in 2022? A mere $996,460 – more than double the national average of $490,520.)

And then we have “shrinkflation,” a covert tactic that companies use to subtly reduce the size or weight of a product to save money without increasing the price. A less commonly known form of shrinkflation is where a company swaps ingredients for cheaper alternatives, or adds water while decreasing other ingredients. 

ED Smith’s Pumpkin Pie Filling, for example, used to list vegetable oil as the third-largest ingredient. In the new version, vegetable oil has been moved to sixth place. And taking its place at third? Water. It’s pumpkin soup not pumpkin filling. 

Experts say that when a product package has been redesigned, it’s a red flag that shrinkflation may have occurred as well. Here’s some downsized products masquerading behind a “new and improved” package design CBC Marketplace noted: Wheat Thins Crackers, Kraft Heinz’s Original Kraft Dinner, Liberté Yogurt, Tropicana Orange Juice, Campbell’s Chunky Soup, Lays Chips, Armstrong Cheese, and many more. All have shrunk. The Minimalist period. More is less, or is it more not less, more or less?

In Canada, when companies shrink products, they are under no obligation to let consumers know about the change. In Brazil, there are actually laws in place to inform consumers of changes to a product’s weight. Companies must state how much was in the product before and after the change. And the information must remain on the label for six months. 

Town trips are already a bit of a marathon. Now, we not only have to read every grocery flyer for the sales, go to seven retail outlets for the bargains, bring our own scale to weigh every product, we also have to be alert to new packaging designs. It’s a good thing they have shopping carts, we’ll need them for the binoculars, the scale, the tape measure, and a magnifying glass. Yes, it may extend the time we spend in the stores, but what’s another hour and a half? Just make sure you stay hydrated and make it an adventure.

*Or grow your own and eat seasonally I’m told, though even this now has its challenges, from feed and seed costs to erratic climate seasons and events. Nettles and oysters?