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A Grocer Code of Conduct is Finally Coming to Canada – Will it be Effective? [Op-Ed]

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“We’ve just learned that a code of conduct to protect consumers in the food sector will be created. This is not a concept which can be easily understood, but it is indeed  good news for consumers. But, it is a voluntary, government-coordinated and industry-led code. Compliance and consumer trust are going to be significant challenges, especially right now. Time will tell effective the code will be.”

As reported in recent days, the grocer code of conduct is coming to Canada. Both the United Kingdom and Australia where grocer oligopolies exist have a similar code already. This is great news for consumers; in fact, it should be considered a minor miracle.

It all started a few years ago with the announcement of Michael Medline, Sobeys’ big boss, who said at the Empire Club in Toronto that enough is enough. It was 2020, when the major stores including Walmart, Loblaws, Costco, Metro and Sobeys were abusing their power by introducing all kinds of fees to their suppliers in a brutally random way. Medline’s announcement sent shock waves through the industry, upsetting the in-group  among retailers that were keen to continue intimidating the rest of the industry. At the time, Eric Laflèche and his team at Metro, for example, told some reporters to ignore this issue, and that the industry was fine. Total arrogance. Now, after just a few years of this, the public sees the major chains as public enemy number one. Our food retailers are accused of abuse and trickery on a daily basis.

Grocers have now begun to realize that there might be a problem. Major grocery chains have had a lot of power, maybe a little too much. The famous dispute between Frito-Lay and Loblaws last year exposed the problem to the public. It was ugly, very ugly.

Marie-Claude Bibeau, the federal Minister of Agriculture, supported by André Lamontagne, Quebec’s Minister of Agriculture, took the lead by creating a working committee to develop a code of conduct for the industry, to give Canada’s food processors a chance to be heard. Since then, the project has really become the responsibility of Lamontagne and Quebec. The project will establish a code that will help the industry, but above all, consumers. The leadership of Lamontagne and MAPAQ clearly compensated for the bewildering inertia of Ontario and the Ford government. The food processing sector in Ontario is the largest part of the manufacturing sector in Canada’s largest province. Ontario’s silence has been puzzling.

But consumers will also gain in the long run. Many Canadians are unaware of the fact that in the food industry, suppliers must pay grocers to do business. The fee is justified by merchandising costs and shelf space, the types of costs you would expect. But in recent years, things have changed. Companies like Loblaws, Walmart, and Metro abuse the system, and some levies have been imposed quickly, incidentally, and unilaterally. The reality is that it is now more difficult in Canada for food processors and independent grocers to compete.

A code of conduct for grocers should change the culture of an industry where vertical coordination and collaboration barely exist. It is also about tackling a broken business model. A code can neutralize power relations within the chain, stabilize retail prices, emphasize value and innovation for consumers, improve the security of the domestic food supply, and encourage investment in the agri-food sector. In the U.K., where a grocer code of practice exists since 2010, the country’s food inflation has historically been lower than Canada’s.

It must be understood that the code is not about endorsing a police-state or some attempt to nationalize our food distribution. The spirit of the code is to establish greater discipline and eliminate breach of trust, which is exactly what we have now. Many supply chain relationships are dysfunctional, while public trust is at an all-time low.

The governance around the code will also allow for greater transparency, something that we sorely lack at present. A secretariat will be created to enable industry to be accountable to itself and the public. For some time now, with an inflation rate that has reached record levels, consumers have been increasingly frustrated, fed up, and downright deprived at the grocery store. We want to better understand the mechanics behind pricing. For now, we’re left to guess at just about everything. Consumers do not feel informed or protected. The code will surely help in these aspects. The code will also help independent grocers who deserve a chance to compete against the bigger retailers. Innovation, variety, and food congruity for all of us often go through the independents.

But, it is a voluntary, government-coordinated and industry-led code. Compliance and consumer trust are going to be significant challenges, especially right now. Time will tell if the code will be effective.

The irony in all of this is that, in the beginning, it was food manufacturers who wanted a code. Now, knowing that they are facing a crisis of confidence, grocers themselves need the code, more than ever.

Sylvain Charlebois
Sylvain Charlebois
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is Senior Director of the Agri-Foods Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Also at Dalhousie, he is Professor in food distribution and policy in the Faculty of Agriculture. His current research interest lies in the broad area of food distribution, security and safety, and has published four books and many peer-reviewed journal articles in several publications. His research has been featured in a number of newspapers, including The Economist, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, Foreign Affairs, the Globe & Mail, the National Post and the Toronto Star.

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