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Riding the e-commerce wave: be aware of risks of some online purchases

Riding the e-commerce wave: be aware of risks of some online purchases

If you find you're buying more everyday items online, you are not alone. You've joined the tidal wave of consumers who are flooding the Internet with orders of every product imaginable.

E-commerce purchases surged in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. As Canadians stayed home, they fulfilled more of their grocery and household needs through online orders – many of them placed with suppliers in other countries.

According to a Statistics Canada report, e-commerce sales nearly doubled in Canada during the first half of 2020. In May that year, online purchases soared to a record $3.9 billion from $2 billion just three months earlier.

Following the reopening of in-person stores in late 2021, the record growth of e-commerce appears to be levelling off, but the online shopping trend remains strong and all signs indicate it’s here to stay. A recent Canada Post survey found that the average online shopper will place 26 e-commerce orders in 2022, an increase of 60% since 2019. Half of respondents said they buy more items online now, while a quarter said they no longer shop at malls.

There's bad with the good

Buying goods online offers convenience and affords people the opportunity to make purchases from the comfort and safety of their homes. But what you might not know is that there can be a downside to buying certain food, plants, animals or associated products online.

Bringing these products into the country or across provincial boundaries via e-commerce purchases, especially from unknown suppliers, can pose a serious risk to Canadians and Canada's resources and economy if they do not meet Canadian requirements.

In addition, you might have responsibilities such as having to pay taxes, duties and shipping fees.

Consumers should be aware of the potential risks associated with these kinds of goods when making purchases, says Dr. Joanne Butler, Executive Director of Food Safety and Consumer Protection for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA).

"Food could be contaminated with bacteria and viruses dangerous to human health, such as E. coli and norovirus. Plant goods could carry pests that pose a risk to Canadian crops," says Dr. Butler. "Animals and animal products could be infected with diseases that can be deadly to livestock and in some cases humans."

As part of its commitment to help protect the health and well-being of Canadians and Canada's environment and economy, the CFIA enforces regulations that safeguard food and animal and plant health.

Awareness is key

When making e-commerce purchases, Butler says, consumers are taking on risks and responsibilities, and should be aware of restrictions that may apply to the products they're ordering.

"If you're buying food, plant or animal products from abroad and having it shipped to you in Canada, these products might be withheld from delivery if they don't meet Canadian regulatory laws."

Canadian online businesses that sell food, plants, animals and associated products are subject to applicable laws. For example, federal regulations apply to imported food as well as to food shipped from one province to another province. "Let's say you're in New Brunswick and buying food prepared and sent to you from a business in British Columbia," Butler says. "In this scenario, the business in B.C. will need to be licensed by the CFIA."

If items are detained by Canadian officials at the border because they don't meet Canadian laws, you may run the risk of having your item removed from the country or forfeited and possibly disposed of.

"Consumers whose shipment is held at the border for examination or withheld from delivery due to compliance issues are often surprised to learn the product wasn't local or Canadian, and actually came from abroad," says Butler. "Some websites use measures to mislead consumers into thinking the products are Canadian or approved by government authorities."

Things to consider when shopping online

Certain foreign goods do not comply with federal import laws and it could be illegal and unsafe to bring them into the country, says Butler. "There are federal requirements that must be met by sellers and importers of food, plant and animal products."

Consumers can also protect themselves by taking a moment to learn about the seller of the goods they are buying. This is especially important if the product and/or seller is new or unfamiliar.

"A little online research can help to verify the product is coming from a reputable supplier," Butler says.

"Look on their website for general information about the online business, such as whether they're from Canada or have direct sales to Canadians, which means they are likely aware of federal and provincial regulations aimed at protecting consumers. Some businesses might also indicate they belong to a recognized industry association and have obtained a third-party recognition in their sector for meeting a specified set of quality standards."

Buyers can also search for independent product and seller reviews that might help to tell the story of whether to place an e-commerce order for a certain product from a certain vendor.

All indications are that online shopping will continue to grow in popularity during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, so Butler encourages consumers to develop good practices when making e-commerce purchases of food, plants, animals and related products.

"A benefit of e-commerce is that it opens up a whole world of goods to Canadians. By adopting good practices with their online orders, consumers can mitigate risks associated with online purchases and help make sure that goods that don't meet our laws stay out of Canada."

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