Canada’s top grocery executives have pledged to “support” the Liberal government’s efforts to keep prices in check, Industry Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne says.
The heads of Canada’s biggest grocery chains attended a summit struck by the Liberals in Ottawa on Monday as Parliament Hill returned to session and the government vowed action on affordability issues dogging Canadians.
Champagne told reporters before question period Monday afternoon that it was an “historic day” to have the heads of Canada’s biggest grocers in one place, and said the roughly two-hour meeting between Ottawa and the executives had “difficult discussions” but a “constructive tone.”
“The large grocers have accepted to work with the government of Canada,” Champagne said.
“This is a step in the right direction. … this is just the beginning. We’re going to be working to bring price stability in Canada.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that the invitation to the heads of Loblaw, Metro, Empire, Walmart Canada and Costco came with an ultimatum to craft a plan to address food inflation before Thanksgiving, otherwise “tax measures” would be on the table.
The government did not provide details of what formal plans if any came out of the meeting on Monday.
Speaking in French, Champagne said the companies will now need to develop concrete individual plans to stabilize prices.
“Now you want to let them compete against each other so Canadians can see the benefits of competition,” he said.
Empire CEO Michael Medline told reporters on Monday afternoon the meeting was “very productive” but did not answer questions about whether it will actually lead to lower prices.
Nor would Metro CEO Eric La Fleche.
“We’re all committed to finding solutions to stabilize prices and bring down the (consumer price index) on the food side,” he said, calling high prices an “industry issue.”
When pressed by reporters about whether prices will come down, La Fleche said “prices fluctuate every week in our industry,” and noted that the discussions were about consumer packaged goods rather than fresh foods such as produce, dairy and meat.
In a statement to Global News, the Retail Council of Canada said “a lot of ground” was covered in the meeting and called it constructive and informative.
“There was also alignment that any discussions on food prices must include all members of the complex supply chain,” spokesperson Michelle Wasylyshen wrote. “This is something that we have called for consistently, given that 70 per cent to 80 per cent of grocery checkout prices arise before food even gets to Canada’s grocers.”
For Ottawa’s part, Champagne cited plans to reform the Competition Act as one strategy the government is using to keep prices in check in the food industry and beyond.
The proposed new powers for the competition commissioner announced last week include the ability to subpoena companies to acquire documents during probes — an issue the Competition Bureau cited as a barrier in its investigation of concentration in Canada’s grocery sector.
That report found Canada could benefit from increased competition in the industry from independent and international grocers to help limit food inflation in the long term.
Food inflation at the grocery store has remained elevated at 8.5 per cent in the latest consumer price index reading, even as price pressures elsewhere in the economy show signs of easing.
Heading into the meeting with the grocery executives on Monday, Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that the grocery summit was one piece of the Liberals’ plan to address Canadians’ affordability concerns as Parliament begins its fall session.
“Our government is going to do everything in our power to make sure prices stabilize. This meeting today is part of that effort,” she said.
Some food economists who spoke to Global News ahead of the grocer summit on Monday said that the Trudeau government’s efforts to put the onus for calming food inflation on the grocery executives were misguided and “disingenuous.”
The University of Guelph’s Michael von Massow said his “cynical” take on the meeting was that it’s more intended to be a balm for the Liberals’ challenges in the polls as of late than likely to meaningfully address cost of living concerns.
“We’re seeing this government get hammered about affordability,” he told Global News.
“It appears to be something to take heat off of them, rather than something that will really fundamentally affect affordability for Canadians.”
Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre pressed the Liberal government repeatedly about whether Monday’s meeting would have a tangible impact on the prices of lettuce and other produce staples by Thanksgiving during the first question period session of the House’s new sitting.
NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh, who noted that he was the only head of a federal party to question the CEOs of Canada’s grocers during committee hearings this spring, called for the Liberals to better hold the executives to account for “corporate greed.”
“When will the government step up and force these CEOs to finally lower their prices?” he asked during question period.
The Retail Council of Canada said in a statement last week that grocer profits have nothing to do with the rising cost of food, pointing instead to higher costs being passed on from food manufacturers and producers.
Liberal minister Sean Fraser and Karina Gould spoke to reporters Monday ahead of Parliament’s return, vowing that a bill to address affordability concerns will be introduced “imminently” in the new sitting.
— with files from Global News’ Kyle Benning and Sean Previl, and The Canadian Press
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