Grocery's proposed code of practice is a glimmer of hope

Many Canadians are unaware that suppliers need to pay grocers to conduct business. Fees were justified by merchandising costs, shelf space--things anyone would expect--yet, in recent years, things changed. Companies such as Loblaw and Walmart were using infrastructure and capital projects to justify new fees. Walmart’s latest $500 million dollar distribution centre project, for instance, is partially financed by suppliers.

Grocers were charging fees, and suppliers and food manufacturers complied. It was the same in the United Kingdom and in Australia, where oligopolistic powers in the grocery space prevailed. That is, until a code of practice was implemented. It seems Canada is now joining that club.

Indeed, a draft code of practice exists now in Canada between food manufacturers and grocers, well, one grocer. Empire, which recently acquired two key independent grocers in Longo’s and Farm Boy, felt it was time for a change. Loblaw and Metro have always stated a code was not necessary in Canada, and it’s doubtful they will join.

Canada's agriculture ministers recently agreed to create a working group to study this important issue. Instead of waiting for a report to be presented sometime in July, both Food Health and Consumer Products Canada (FHCP) and Empire opted to go ahead and set a standard for the industry by presenting a new code of practice. The code includes five guiding principles, which essentially gets all parties to commit and act in good faith as they conduct regular business. No more unilateral decisions, no more last-minute ploys, just straight, honest business.

Current market conditions have made it more challenging for food processors in Canada. Food manufacturing contributed $26.5 billion to the Canadian GDP in 2020. In the U.S., it was $766 billion in 2020, which is 29 times larger. That’s right, 29 times. As it is in the U.S., a strong food processing sector can serve as a strategic anchor for the entire industry. The supply chain is not as vulnerable to macroeconomic shifts and can allow the industry to better support our farmers. The mad cow crisis and our latest spat with China are good examples.

Food manufacturing was the second largest manufacturing sector in Canada after transportation equipment in 2020, despite few plant openings and several high-profile closures over the last decade. Financial heartaches aside, food manufacturing also managed to grow its GDP contribution to 13.47% in 2020 from 13.18% in 2010. But the sector can do better.

While food prices continue to climb in Canada, grocers’ fees, in addition to low margins, have not helped manufacturers benefit from these rising prices. In most cases, farmers did not benefit from recent food price hikes. Some may speculate that food prices may rise due to a code, forcing grocers to charge more to protect margins. The United Kingdom has had a code since 2009, and food inflation in the country has generally been lower than here in Canada over the last decade.

This code is meant to change the culture of an industry in which vertical coordination and collaboration barely exists. It is also very much about dealing with a broken supply-side economic model few people in Canada can appreciate. The code is obviously an unproven concept in Canada, and few know if it’s going to work without other major grocers participating, however, the current situation was no longer viable.

Strong supply chain collaboration could lead to more innovation and growth. When forced to work on issues, parties will need to share data and insights. As such, market gaps can be recognized more easily as the execution of developing and commercializing novel food products is more likely. The code can create opportunities if the group remains disciplined and committed as the code is not legally binding.

Only time will tell if the code works. But this effort is a valiant one. The concept is no longer just academic. Instead of letting politics dictate the industry’s faith, suppliers and Empire are giving some hope that perhaps things can be different.

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