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COVID-19 one year later: Canadians have more faith in the food industry than in each other, report suggests

Last spring, Faires stocked up little by little, grabbing a few extra items each time she shopped. With the one-year anniversary of the pandemic approaching on March 11, she has almost exhausted her supply of canned goods.

“As soon as the shelves started to empty, people started to freak out. I even remember going and thinking, ‘Do I need these extra couple cans of chickpeas? No, not necessarily but there are only two left,’” recalls Faires. “(But the food industry) was able to reroute things … and we know it can do that again.”

Only 17.4 per cent of the 10,005 Canadians surveyed in late February 2021 believe the industry will fail to deliver enough food at some point in the future. When it comes to the behaviour of fellow citizens, however, Canadians feel more insecure.

The stockpiling that defined the early days of the pandemic remains a concern; just 38.4 per cent of respondents count on people not hoarding food as a result of COVID-19.

“It points to how people aren’t necessarily trusting of how others will behave in a moment of panic,” says Sylvain Charlebois, director of the AAL. “Uncertainty is a powerful sentiment and it gets people to do things that they don’t plan to do. And that’s what happened last spring.”

The report suggests that the food industry succeeded at reassuring people of the resilience and safety of the supply chain; 72.2 per cent of Canadians have confidence in the safety of their food products despite the pandemic, and 73.7 per cent are satisfied with the level of safety.

Food safety confidence levels vary by province and generation. New Brunswick has the highest confidence score (79.9 per cent), Newfoundland and Labrador the lowest (70.6 per cent). Additionally, Boomers have the highest confidence score (77.2 per cent), followed by Gen X (72.1 per cent), Millennials (69.1 per cent) and Generation Z (65.1 per cent).

As food prices continue to rise, reports from Europe and Asia suggest that food fraud — including counterfeiting, ingredient substitution and mislabelling — is also increasing, says Charlebois. Most commonly reported in olive oil, honey, dried spices and fish, fraud is estimated to affect roughly 10 per cent of all food products sold worldwide, and costs the industry between $10 and $15 billion each year.

Food fraud is a global issue but only 18.4 per cent of Canadians are worried about the authenticity of their food products. Charlebois and Faires attribute this to a combined lack of awareness of the issue and faith in the systems in place to combat food fraud.

“People don’t see (food fraud) as an issue all that much in Canada,” says Charlebois. “But in actuality, it kind of is because there have been some troubling reports about mislabelling and counterfeiting in Canada over the last few years.”

While the report shows trust in access, authenticity, safety and sustainability (only 25.4 per cent feel that food products are not produced sustainably), the researchers identify healthfulness as the most significant challenge for the food industry.

Most Canadians do not believe food has gotten healthier since the beginning of the pandemic; only 38.4 per cent feel products are healthier than ever. Charlebois expects the healthfulness of products to become a greater issue as we emerge from the pandemic, and the focus shifts from public health to nutrition and personal health.

“A lot of people are struggling right now, whether it’s physical or mental,” says Charlebois. “(It’s) important for the industry to think about being a partner for Canadians in their journey to a better self.”

Faires adds: “We’re all focusing on the pandemic instead of food getting healthier, so it’s a matter of priorities.”

Nearly four in five (79.6 per cent) Canadians have confidence in food industry workers and believe they care about providing food during the pandemic.

“(Canadians) have always had respect towards farmers,” says Charlebois, “but what came to light during COVID is that other people work in the food industry, starting with people in the grocery stores.”