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House of Commons committee recommends feds tackle ‘excessive’ profits in food sector

By Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press

The federal government should consider policies to tackle “excessive net profits” in the food industry, said the House of Commons committee studying food prices in its latest report.

The committee recommended the government look into ways to address these profits in “monopolistic and oligopolistic sectors in the food supply chain,” which it says are driving up prices for farmers and consumers.

In a report presented on Thursday, the committee detailed its research into the causes of food inflation and insecurity in Canada, including the high-profile testimonies it drew from grocery executives over the past several months.

The leaders of Loblaw, Metro, Sobeys-owner Empire, Walmart Canada and Costco have all faced questions from MPs over the size of their profits amid high food inflation, which the grocers say they haven’t unduly profited from.

The committee report offered a number of recommendations that range from lowering the barrier to entry for new companies to Canada, to making legislative changes to strengthen competition law regarding mergers.

The committee also recommended that the government discuss with the provinces and territories legislation to make the grocery code of conduct mandatory.

It comes on the heels of an announcement from Loblaw that it plans to sign on to the code after months of pressure on the country’s largest grocer to participate.

The industry-led code is intended to help level the playing field for smaller companies in the industry.

It’s meant to be voluntary, but in recent months pressure has grown on the government to make it law instead as not all of the major grocers appeared to be willing to sign on.

In December, Loblaw and Walmart told the committee they were concerned it would increase prices for Canadians. And earlier this year, the committee wrote a letter to those two grocers, saying if they didn’t sign on, it would recommend that the code be made mandatory.

Last week, Loblaw announced that after months of discussions it was ready to sign on to the code as long as all stakeholders do.

“The code now is fair, and it will not lead to higher prices,” said president and CEO Per Bank.

At the time, Walmart said the company is reviewing the latest draft of the code.

The grocer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did Costco.

The Retail Council of Canada declined to comment on the report.

Michael Graydon, CEO of the Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada association and chairman of the interim board for the code, said the group is “very supportive” of all the committee’s recommendations.

When it comes to the code, “our industry’s desire is a fully inclusive code that involves all stakeholders. That remains our goal and so (I) am hopeful that can be achieved,” he wrote in an email.

The Competition Bureau is currently investigating the use of restrictive clauses in the grocery sector, controls in lease agreements that it claims hamper competition in the industry.

And industry minister François-Philippe Champagne has said he’s seeking a foreign grocer to strengthen competition in the Canadian market.

Though grocery inflation has moderated significantly from its highs, reaching just 1.4 per cent in April, prices have risen 21.4 per cent over the past three years. The resulting squeeze on consumers’ wallets combined with higher interest rates has led to public pressure for the government — and the grocers — to act. Some consumers have launched a boycott of Loblaw, the biggest of the Canadian grocers, to voice their frustrations.

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