Comment: Price-fixing of bread would be hard to prove

A bread cartel is alive and well in Canada — or is it? The Competition Bureau is carrying out an investigation of major grocery chains in search of evidence of retail price-fixing.

Loblaws, Sobeys, Metro, Walmart and other companies have acknowledged the continuing investigation. The outcome of this inquiry will likely not amount to much, but it does raise the question of why bread is being targeted by the bureau.

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Demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that grocers are colluding to keep retail prices artificially high is almost impossible. Several attempts have been made in the past, with mixed results. Grocery stores carry on average more than 15,000 different products, and prices can be affected by an array of factors: commodity prices; energy and labour costs; new food safety and packaging regulations.

These and others factors can influence prices in many categories more or less simultaneously. Intentional collusion to inflate profit margins would be hard to prove.

Historically, bread prices have been stable, with the exception of 2008 and 2009, when prices jumped almost 50 per cent in a single year for all bakery products. On the whole, unlike fruits, vegetables and even meat products, bread has been immune to fluctuating prices for some time. In fact, Canadians have the most affordable food basket in the world.

After the United States, and perhaps Singapore, Canadians spend less on food relative to their income than most countries in the world. Nonetheless, since we are north of the United States, where food quality is generally questionable but amazingly cheap, we often get unfairly benchmarked.

Prices are higher here, but much lower than in many places around the world. In the past month alone, food retail prices have dropped in Canada, including for bakery products. So to suggest that food prices are inflated is somewhat farfetched; or at least, if, as some believe, Canadian consumers are paying too much for bread due to price-fixing schemes, the evidence for this claim is not readily apparent.

At the centre of this investigation is a much deeper problem that lies in the food-supply chain. For years, grocers have made war on food processors, with grocers trying to position themselves as protectors of the public interest by pushing vendors to lower prices to remain competitive.

For the past few years, tensions between grocers and vendors have been at an all-time high. For a few years, major grocers have demanded price cuts from suppliers and it has had a domino effect on the entire industry. So it is not surprising to learn that independent grocers through an industry association passed along their concerns to the Competition Bureau. Consumers have barely noticed the conflict, until now.

The Competition Bureau might be trying to communicate to the market that grocers are on watch for squeezing processors. The bureau could have selected any food product, but bread’s status as a food staple makes it an obvious choice; a clear majority of Canadians eat bakery products almost daily and, as a result, its price is an ongoing concern.

It was chosen for a reason: to make an otherwise dreary, obscure, supply-side issue more imperative to the daily lives of consumers.

Publicly traded companies extorting each other is less a political matter than grocers allegedly gouging consumers. The investigation will likely not yield material results, but bread is clearly the best medium through which the bureau can send its message.

No one is likely to be accused or arrested any time soon, but this investigation could potentially restore peace in the food-industry family. A vibrant food sector is not possible without a strong food-processing sector, and making sure all make a decent profit within the food industry is difficult.

Nonetheless, consumers can only benefit if all sectors, from farm to table, succeed; we can end up with a greater variety of decently priced, high-quality, innovative food products. Ultimately, and without sending anyone to prison, this investigation could strengthen the food sector.

Grocers know better than to engage in a doomed strategy of quotas and illegal price-setting activities. The mere spectre of a grocery cartel would not only be bad business, it threatens to tear up the social contract with the Canadian public that they adhere to every day.

Consumers can expect to see deals being made within the industry in the days ahead. Food shoppers will almost certainly experience rebates in the bakery section as grocers rush to reassure consumers that a bread cartel in Canada is a myth.

Sylvain Charlebois is a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

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