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NDP says Ottawa's new grocery task force isn't living up to government promises

The federal government says the task force it created to monitor and investigate grocery retailers' practices has not conducted any probes and doesn't have a mandate to take enforcement action.
A customer shops for produce at a grocery store In Toronto on Friday, Feb. 2, 2024. The federal NDP is accusing Ottawa of misrepresenting a task force announced last fall that it said would investigate grocery retailers’ practices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Cole Burston

The federal government says the task force it created to monitor and investigate grocery retailers' practices has not conducted any probes and doesn't have a mandate to take enforcement action.

The acknowledgement was made earlier this month in response to written questions by the NDP.

Industry Minister François-Philippe Champagne said last fall the government would establish a grocery task force within the Office of Consumer Affairs. He described it asa dedicated team that would monitor grocers' work to stabilize food prices, and investigate and uncover practices like shrinkflation.

The April federal budget reiterated the message that the task force is monitoring the grocers’ work on price stabilization, “as well as investigating other price inflation practices in the grocery sector.”

But the task force appears to have less teeth than the government's description suggests.

In February, NDP MP and agri-food critic Alistair MacGregor requested information from the federal government on the task force and its investigations.

The response from the government he received this monthsays, “As the task force has no mandate to take enforcement actions, it has not conducted any investigations.” 

“Why, after making all of these bold pronouncements back in October and bringing a lot of people's hopes up that the government was actually going to do something, why is it that the grocery task force has not conducted any investigations?” MacGregor said in an interview. 

He said he was surprised and disappointed to find out the task force has no mandate to investigate.

“I think that is a pretty flimsy excuse coming from the Liberals, actually saying that the task force doesn't have a mandate to take enforcement actions, and therefore it can't conduct any investigations.”

A spokesman for Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada provided information on the task force, but didn’t directly answer questions addressed to Champagne about why the government's announcement and budget said the task force would investigate grocers' practices, or about MacGregor’s criticisms. 

The task force is operational, and is made up of government officials “dedicated to examining retail and grocery issues with a view to improving affordability for Canadians,” said ISED spokesman Hans Parmar in an email.

Its mandate and responsibilities include providing information, analysis and recommendations; engaging other government departments as well as external experts and representatives; working with consumer groups that are doing research and advocacy work; andpromoting information to consumers “so they are aware of their rights and empowering them to make informed marketplace choices,” said Parmar. 

MacGregor thinks the task force should be conducting investigations even if it can’t take enforcement action.

“If it were to find anything, it would almost certainly be able to kick that up to the minister's office, who has a greater, much wider array of powers and tools to use, or at least to be able to report back to Parliament and to Canadians on what's really going on in the sector,” he said. 

The Liberal government has been putting pressure on Canada’s major grocers to do something about rising food prices, and last fall called them up to Ottawa and demanded they present plans on the actions they were taking.

A House of Commons committee has also been studying the issue of food prices, and has brought executives from the grocers as well as industry experts before the committee to answer questions.

MacGregor said the committee is currently working on a draft of its second report regarding food price inflation, and hopes to table it soon. 

Though food inflation has been steadily moderating from its double-digit heights, prices are still significantly higher than they were just a few years ago, and frustration among Canadians with the major grocers has only mounted.

Pressure is also increasing for the grocers to sign on to a grocery code of conduct that seeks to improve fair dealings in the industry, particularly between the big grocers and their suppliers. Loblaw and Walmart said last December that they wouldn’t sign the code as currently drafted, because they think it will raise retail food prices.

There has been talk of the government making the code mandatory as a result, with the House of Commons committee calling on the two holdouts to sign on, or it would recommend that federal and provincial governments adopt legislation to make it mandatory. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 30, 2024.

Rosa Saba, The Canadian Press