Restaurants and Retailers: You can help consumers make sense of rising food prices




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Restaurants and Retailers: You can help consumers make sense of rising food prices

Owen Roberts - University of Guelph

  • 3 November 2015
Owen Roberts - The Urban Cowboy

Owen Roberts teaches communications at the University of Guelph where he's held the position of director of research communications for more than 25 years. He is also an adjunct professor in the Department of Animal Biosciences.

Blog: // Twitter: @TheUrbanCowboy

In polls meant to inform the 2015 Canadian federal election, voters called rising food costs the second biggest problem facing our nation.

Food costs rated so high, in fact, they trailed only the rising cost of living, and surpassed some real heavyweight issues, such as the economy and pensions.

Finishing high in this poll is a dubious distinction. And it’s a giant wake up call for anyone involved in food retailing.

Here’s why. Consumers through the ages have made price one of their top priorities. But these days, food is being tossed in with the general malaise consumers are feeling about the growing cost of everything. Look at the poll results, and how overall expenses related to day-to-day life have raced ahead – housing and transportation, among them. That’s when the big picture emerges.

Consumers are concerned about those costs. Maybe they can find alternatives in some areas – one car instead of two, public transit, downsizing their home, etc. But it’s a troubling trend, and they’re twitchy. The poll results show it.

It also takes the cost of food from being an economic matter to a political one. Given the final outcome of the poll, politicians can hardly avoid paying attention. And that means they’ll be looking to the food sector for answers.

So, let’s consider this new development an educational opportunity. When politicians come knocking, offer them facts to help them address rising food costs with their constituents. Quoting research-based figures may help calm concerns.

First, acknowledge the phenomenon is real. In its annual food cost forecast, the University of Guelph’s food institute predicted food prices would indeed rise this year. It’s no shock, and it didn’t creep up on the public.

If the food institute is right, food costs will rise about 2.5 per cent in 2015, with meat in general leading the way at around a five per cent increase.

That leads to the next point: perspective. Consumers have seen one product in particular – that is, beef – lead the rising cost parade. And for sure, it’s been a whopper of a rise. But we know it’s a market correction that will taper off, and we know there are alternatives. Price-conscious consumers are making new choices, such as pork, and politicians need to know.

Another fact worth noting is that despite the cost, food here is a bargain. Canadians dedicate comparatively little of their earnings to food. And that amount keeps getting smaller every year, giving them opportunities to pursue other interests with their money. Food Freedom Day, the calendar date when most Canadians will have earned enough income to pay their grocery bill for the entire year, arrives mid-February.

And finally, a key talking point with consumers about food is its origin. Here in Ontario, that means local, local, local. Although the public is concerned about rising costs, it is adamant that local Ontario farmers should thrive, particularly family farms. It wants local food grown sustainably by local farmers.

That’s an easy one for Ontario’s pork industry. Nearly 100 per cent of the province’s 1,500 pork farms are family farms. That’s something consumers can rally behind.

They can also understand that while farming is a lifestyle, it’s also a business. Businesses need to be profitable. That hinges on farmers’ own ability, along with consumers’ patronage. 

But given the many virtues of local food, wouldn’t consumers be willing to pay a fair price for sustainable, local food grown and raised by local farmers?

And isn’t it in politicians’ best interest to support a healthy rural Canada, where urban people go for recreation, tourism and raw materials, to name a few?

Sure it is. So don’t be spooked by this new poll. Calming and reassuring answers can be offered. But let’s beware of how much the concerns have escalated, and help people understand what’s going on.

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Ontario Pork represents the 1,192 farmers who market 5.41 million hogs in the province. The organization is engaged in many areas, including research, government representation, environmental issues, consumer education and food quality assurance.

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