More than a third of British Columbians believe grocery chains gouging them at the checkout is the main reason food prices have risen across the country in recent years, a recent poll has found.
The survey, released Tuesday by Dalhousie University’s Agri-Food Analytics Lab, comes as food prices continue to climb across Canada. By February 2023, Statistics Canada reported the year-over-year price for cereal products was up 14.8 per cent, dairy products were up 9.1 per cent, while vegetables and bakery products were both up 13.9 per cent.
The national statistics agency has blamed the past year of price increases on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the high cost of animal feed, energy and packaging material, and supply constraints amid “unfavourable weather in growing regions.” StatCan says oranges are to blame for a 15.7 per cent increase in the price of fruit juices in February, largely due to citrus greening disease and “climate-related events, such as Hurricane Ian.”
Cynthia Boulter, chief operating officer of the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, said that’s helped push thousands of new people toward food insecurity.
“We continue to see records being broken literally every month,” said Boulter. “We’re up to 16,0000 lives covered each month.”
Boulter says the biggest upticks in food bank users are new immigrants and refugees, including a growing number of recently arrived Ukrainians. People out of work and those on fixed incomes not indexed to inflation also regularly access food from B.C.’s biggest food bank, said Boulter.
“Then there’s the international student component — people who have been here for a few years and their savings have evaporated,” she said.
Poll comes amid national probes into food price increases
The latest poll comes on the heels of testimony given by Canada’s top CEOs of Canada’s major grocery chains — including Walmart, Loblaws, Empire/Sobeys and Metro — at the Standing Committee in Agriculture and Agri-Food last month.
Several MPs grilled executives over growing profit margins and new fees charged to suppliers during the pandemic.
“We're hearing there may be competition between a few companies in the market, but just five grocers sell over 80 per cent of all the food we eat in Canada,” said Liberal MP for Kitchener-Conestoga Tim Louis in a March 27 committee meeting.
“You're charging more and more fees that make those suppliers and food manufacturers' lives difficult just because of the size that you have, and those fees and charges seem to continue to multiply.”
In response, Walmart Canada's CEO Gonzalo Gebara said the company was not profiting off of inflation. Pierre Riel, Costco's senior vice-president and country manager for Canada, is scheduled to appear before the committee on April 17.
"It's not as though American grocers are taking advantage of Canadians and Canadian grocers aren't. The grocers are going to charge what they can get away with, what the market will bear," University of Toronto economist Ambarish Chandra told the Canadian Press shortly after the Walmart executive testified to the parliamentary committee.
The poll found that more than a third of survey respondents said they had been following the committee testimony.
“Of those Canadians who did follow the proceedings, only 32.9 per cent felt grocers were either very convincing or convincing during testimonies. The majority remained unconvinced,” the agri-food lab’s results noted.
More than 33 per cent of British Columbians said grocers gouging them at the till is the main reason for food price increases — the highest rate of distrust after Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Prince Edward Island.
Quebec and Saskatchewan were the only two provinces where respondents from the survey said price gouging wasn’t the number one reason for food price increases.
With grocery prices increasing at the fastest rate in 40 years, Canada’s Competition Bureau launched an investigation into the competitive behaviour of the country’s grocery chains. The results of that probe are expected to be tabled in June.
Sales transparency, price freezes top favoured solutions for consumers
Many Canadians, according to the poll, have already made up their mind on whether big grocers are being forthright in how they price their food.
Only a quarter of respondents said they felt grocers were being transparent with Canadians. A further 44 per cent said more transparency on food sales would help consumers, the survey found.
Janet Music, research associate at the Agri-Food Analytics Lab, said consumer trust in a grocers' ethics, transparency and sustainability “will be even more critical going forward.”
Between a nearly half and a third of respondents favoured price freezes, more generous loyalty programs and more competition across Canada as solutions to climbing food prices.
Government intervention to regulate the price of some staples garnered 44 per cent support. Another 19.1 per cent said the government should implement a windfall tax to target unexpected profits, while only 4.5 per cent said the government should create its own grocery chain under a Crown corporation.
Outside of Canada, food inflation is hitting many developed countries even harder. As of February 2023, Canada had the third lowest rate of food inflation across G7 countries and the European Union. Only Japan and the United States had lower price increases due to inflation, said the lab.
Two-thirds favour a ‘grocery code of conduct’
The survey also asked consumers about their support for a proposed “grocery code of conduct,” which would “lessen the influence of some major grocers and help independent grocers and processors.”
Almost two-thirds of those who were aware of the code — currently under review by federal Minister of Agriculture Marie-Claude Bibeau — supported its rollout. The most support for the code of conduct was found in British Columbia and Nova Scotia, where roughly three quarters of respondents backed the proposal.
"The Grocery Code of Conduct is not just a set of rules, it's a lifeline for Canadian shoppers,” said the Agri-Food Analytics Lab’s director Sylvain Charlebois in a statement.
“It ensures fair pricing, transparency, consistency, and accountability from retailers, giving consumers the peace of mind they deserve when purchasing their groceries.”
The survey, conducted by Caddle on behalf of the Dalhousie lab, was carried out at the end of March 2023 and included nearly 10,000 respondents across Canada. It carried a margin of error of plus or minus two per cent.
With files from the Canadian Press