Grocery code of conduct won’t drive food prices higher, Empire CEO says – National

Empire Co. Ltd. chief executive Michael Medline said there’s no evidence that a grocery code of conduct would raise food prices for Canadians.

The president and CEO of Sobeys’ parent company made the comment at a Retail Council of Canada event in Toronto on Tuesday.

Medline, who was the first retailer to speak out in favour of a code, said he wouldn’t support a grocery code of conduct for his industry if he thought it would make retail prices higher.

He said he hopes the grocery code could lead to lower food prices in the future, but added it’s not a panacea “for all the issues that drive up prices.”

Last fall, Loblaw and Walmart said they wouldn’t sign on to the code as currently drafted, stalling progress as the agreement neared completion.

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Proponents of the code say it will help level the playing field for suppliers and smaller grocery retailers by introducing rules for negotiations between industry players, including retailers and suppliers. It would also include a dispute resolution process.

But Loblaw and Walmart have said they are concerned it would raise food prices for Canadians.

The impasse has led to talk of the code being made mandatory instead of voluntary, with the House of Commons committee tasked with studying food prices telling Loblaw and Walmart that if they don’t sign on, the committee will recommend the code be made law.

Click to play video: 'Could a grocery code of conduct cut food prices?'

Could a grocery code of conduct cut food prices?

Medline said he’s frustrated at how long the code has taken, but still believes there’s a way to keep it industry-led instead of bringing in legislation.

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“It’s high time this was brought to a close,” he said.

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There’s no code without all the retailers, added Medline in an interview after the event.

“I think everyone’s caught in a bit of a stalemate right now trying to figure out how to put pressure on the parties that won’t sign,” he said.

“I think it’s a bit of a game of chicken here.”

Discussions about the code are ongoing with all retailers, said Doug Nathanson, Empire’s executive vice-president, chief development officer and general counsel, in an interview.

“We’re not giving up, so it’s not at a standstill. We’re trying to get everyone’s consensus,” said Nathanson.

Click to play video: 'Loblaw head Galen Weston says grocery code of conduct would raise food prices'

Loblaw head Galen Weston says grocery code of conduct would raise food prices

Medline said he believes the code represents a better way to do business. Having come to the grocery industry from Canadian Tire, he said he was surprised to learn of some the practices that were rampant in the sector.

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“I was just shocked coming into grocery … how the industry did business,” he said.

These included fees such as the ones introduced by Loblaw and Walmart on suppliers in 2020 to help pay for infrastructure investments.

While talk of a code preceded that, Medline said he thinks that was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, finally pushing the industry to start developing a code.

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