By Sylvain Charlebois
At a time when food inflation has become a political battleground, it’s tempting for politicians to target the grocery industry. Sadly, that’s exactly what transpired this year in our country, and it was both ridiculous and embarrassing. The government and Parliament relentlessly hounded grocers, drowning out the opportunity for Canadians to truly comprehend the intricacies of food inflation amid the cacophony of political theatrics.
The recent “greedflation” campaign speaks volumes about the collective amnesia regarding why companies exist and the power of market forces. The sustainability of the grocery business in Canada hinges on profits and a profound understanding of the market dynamics.
In 2023, grocers made three visits to Ottawa, appearing in Parliament on March 8, meeting with Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne on September 18 and appearing again in Parliament in November. Regrettably, these visits yielded little more than media photo ops that pleased industry critics.
The notion of compelling competitors to divulge sensitive pricing data is baffling. Such an approach contradicts the very essence of a competitive marketplace.
Many politicians this year have demonstrated a limited grasp of the fundamental principles governing competitive markets. In a genuinely competitive market, centralized coordination among market participants is non-existent. Ottawa’s inclination towards direct market intervention runs counter to the principles necessary for encouraging increased investment and enhancing market competitiveness.
While the bread price-fixing episode was wrong and disgraceful, there’s a genuine concern that the government’s actions may inadvertently foster the re-emergence of similar schemes.
Consumer trust is currently at an all-time low, not necessarily due to the industry itself but because it has been weaponized for political gain. Despite this, we should be grateful to our grocers for their unwavering commitment to feeding Canadians and providing one of the most affordable and safest food baskets globally, even if some politicians have conveniently forgotten or chosen to ignore this fact.
Amid this turbulent year, it’s crucial to remember that the grocery industry plays an indispensable role in the daily life of every Canadian. These businesses have continually adapted to challenges, ensuring store shelves remain stocked and offering a lifeline of sustenance during uncertain times.
As 2024 approaches, let’s hope for a more collaborative and understanding relationship between the industry and the government, one that empowers the market and prioritizes the wellbeing of Canadian consumers.
Sylvain Charlebois is a professor in food distribution and policy, senior director of the Agri-Food Analytics Lab at Dalhousie University, and co-host of The Food Professor Podcast