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Canada food waste: Is more food being thrown out due to unsold, pricey groceries? Experts say it's complicated

As Canadians face rising grocery prices struggling shoppers are wondering if inflation is causing more food waste.

Is food waste more common amid Canada's cost of living crisis and the increasing price of groceries?
Is food waste more common amid Canada's cost of living crisis and the increasing price of groceries?

As Canadians face rising grocery prices — from $16 watermelons to $40 for a pack of chicken — struggling shoppers are wondering if inflation is causing more food waste.

Experts in the food rescue industry and academics in the field told Yahoo Canada that many factors play into food waste. They say that no official data is available to confirm that higher prices are leading to more unsold merchandise, and in turn resulting in more food getting thrown out. Some in the field, however, say they have seen a huge increase in the amount of food they've rescued from wholesalers and grocery stores.


Expert: Many variables to consider

Dr. Kate Parizeau is an associate professor at University of Guelph who specializes in waste management. She said there likely isn’t enough public information to show the connection between inflation and retail food waste, and there are many other variables to consider like seasonality and pricing.

There is some data to suggest that inflation changes people's restaurant habits. They might replace sit-down restaurants with fast food, home meal kits, or with grocery spending, including some splurges to make up for the "treat" element of restaurants. However, it’s hard to know for certain, Parizeau said.

“Food consumption and wastage are dynamic phenomena, and so it can be really hard to parse trends,” she added.

Mike von Massow, a food economist at University of Guelph, said there’s a possibility that inflation is resulting in more food waste, but it’s likely temporary.

“If you’re not selling a $16 watermelon, then you’re not going to order as many watermelons,” he says. “Yes, there can be real short-term impacts but retailers will adjust relatively quickly in an effort to match demand with their inventory.”

Bangladesh, Brahmaputra Delta river navigation, Chandpur, river port, market
Bangladesh, Brahmaputra Delta river navigation, Chandpur, river port, market

Von Massow said that compared to other businesses, grocery retailers have relatively low margins.

“If you look at operating income as a share of sales, it hasn’t changed much in light of the inflationary pressure we’ve had,” he says. “If they were seeing an increase in food waste, that would be coming out of their margins. So there is an incentive to have enough product so that you’ll sell it if the customers want it, but not so much that you have to throw it out.”

He added that while shoppers will see a short term misalignment with inventory and demand as a result of inflation, those circumstances will not last.

“Customers will change their purchasing habits for a variety of reasons,” von Massow says.

Retailers will adjust relatively quickly in an effort to match demand with their inventory.


Foundation sees doubling in food rescue in just one year

Vancouver-based Food Stash Foundation is a charity with several programs that redistribute rescued food from wholesalers, producers and grocery stores.

Anna Gray, the charity’s communications specialist, says they’ve seen an 89 per cent increase in rescued food since 2022, though she stresses that could be a result of several things, including the addition of seven more food donors to the 20 they already work with.

“In the past two years, we’ve seen an increase in food waste from some specific stores, and a decrease in other specific stores,” she says, noting that some retailers could be managing their inventory more efficiently.

Gray shared one specific example of a case of increased waste. In January 2023, Food Stash worked with three grocery stores from the same major chain, which Gray did not name, and rescued 13,542 pounds of food in one month. In January 2024, that number nearly doubled to 26,623 pounds from those same three grocery stores.

Grocers aim for 'as little waste as possible'

Yahoo Canada reached out to Longo's, Sobeys, Metro and Loblaws requesting data around the amount of waste from their stores in recent years. Longo's was the only grocer to respond with a statement, saying the grocery chain's goal is to divert 90 per cent of waste from landfill from their stores and distribution centres by 2025.

“We work hard every day to monitor our product ordering to be sure that we have as little waste as possible," Mike Longo, Longo’s chief operating officer wrote in an email statement.

He added that the grocer partners with the Too Good to Go app at all of their stores. The app allows guests to reserve a bag of discounted food that would otherwise go to waste across a number of departments including bakery, prepared foods, and dairy.


France passes law to ban supermarket waste. Why not Canada?

In 2016, France became the first country to ban supermarket waste.

The law forces large grocery stores to donate food that is still safe to consume, instead of trashing it. Violators could be fined the equivalent of $5,400 with store managers facing up to two years in prison.

The French Federation of Food Banks told PBS that as a result of the law, 46,000 tons of food that would have been tossed annually now gets donated to food banks and other charities.