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Loblaw agrees to sign grocery code of conduct — but only if competitors do

Loblaw Companies Ltd. says it's ready to sign on to the grocery code of conduct as long as other industry players do, too, paving the way for an agreement that's been years in the making.

Move is a shift for Canada's largest food retailer, which previously said a code could increase prices

A drone picture of a large company sign reading 'LOBLAW Companies Limited'.

Loblaw Companies Ltd. said Thursday it's ready to sign on to the grocery code of conduct, paving the way for an agreement that's been years in the making.

After six months of negotiations, Loblaw president and CEO Per Bank said the retailer is now ready to sign as long as other industry players do too.

"The code now is fair, and it will not lead to higher prices," he said in an interview.

The code has been developed by a group of leaders in the food industry, with the intention of levelling the playing field for suppliers and smaller retailers.

But it appeared to come to a halt last December when Loblaw and Walmart Canada said they wouldn't sign the voluntary code because they were concerned it would raise prices for shoppers.

WATCH | How an online campaign to boycott Loblaw began:

Frustrated shoppers boycott Loblaw stores for month of May

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Canadians frustrated with rising groceries prices have pledged to boycott Loblaw-owned stores for the month of May. On the same day it was set to begin, Canada's largest grocer reported a nearly 10 per cent increase in profits.

Nick Henn, Loblaw's chief legal officer, said the underlying principles of the code haven't changed.

"We felt that the words weren't clear in lots of areas, and so we've spent some time with the working committee and the interim board, fixing those areas, improving the code and providing the clarity that we thought it lacked the last time around," he said in the same interview alongside Bank.

One important example was regarding the dispute resolution process, Henn said. Loblaw wanted to make clear when it would be appropriate for issues to go to an adjudicator, and when it wouldn't, such as in the case of price negotiations between suppliers and retailers.

"That was a big concern for us. And so with that no longer being an issue under the draft code, we're much less concerned about the code leading to higher prices," Henn said.

June 1, 2025, is the target date for the code to take effect, he said.

"We've worked very hard to get to where we are," said Michael Graydon, CEO of the Food, Health and Consumer Products of Canada (FHCP) association and chairman of the interim board for the code.

"We now have all the major grocers with the exception of one, and so some work needs to be done in regards to bringing them into the fold," said Graydon, referring to Walmart.

Two people by shopping carts in the fruit and vegetable section of a grocery store.

For its part, Walmart told CBC News in a statement that it just received the latest draft of the revised code, and that it had not been previously shared with the company.

"We will review it and determine next steps. As we've said all along, we continue to be focused on our customers' best interests," wrote a Walmart representative in an email.

Costco has also had "some inquiries around certain aspects" of the code, said FHCP's Graydon, but he hopes they will also agree to participate.

However, Costco executive Pierre Riel had previously said, when speaking to MPs on the agriculture committee in February, "it would be difficult to agree" to a code of conduct that wasn't adhered to by the entire industry.

Work can now continue on establishing the office of the grocery code, says Graydon, which he hopes can begin "sooner rather than later."

Metro, Sobeys still on board

Sobeys and Safeway parent company Empire is glad to see another retailer sign on to the code, spokesperson Sarah Dawson said in an email.

"This brings the industry one step closer to having all stakeholders agree to the principles of engagement, which creates a better foundation for collaboration even while maintaining the competitive element of our industry," said Dawson.

Grocer Metro Inc. reiterated its support of the code, with spokesperson Marie-Claude Bacon saying the company is "convinced that the participation of all grocers and suppliers is essential to its success."

Gary Sands, a member of the code's interim board and senior vice-president at the Canadian Federation of Independent Grocers, said having Loblaw on board is a milestone, though his organization is working to make sure every major player signs onto the code.

According to Sands, the code of conduct will make business practices more transparent and provide a way for food suppliers and retailers to settle disputes.

"We are optimistic … adapting certain principles in the industry will have a positive impact on costs and prices," he said in an interview with CBC Radio's Bizdigest.

It's a stance government agrees with. A joint statement from Lawrence MacAulay, federal minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food and André Lamontagne, Quebec's minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, asked any remaining large retailers to sign onto the code of conduct.

"We believe that uniting all supply chain partners around these principles will produce the best outcomes for the sector and all Canadians," the ministers wrote in an email.

WATCH | Spending less when groceries cost more:

Why are we spending less on groceries when they cost more? | About That

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Food prices are well above the general inflation rate, but Canadians are spending less on average at grocery stores. Andrew Chang breaks down the relationship between the high cost of food and lower grocery bills, and why some ultra-processed alternatives can be risky.

Frustration over high food prices

Over the past several months, calls to make the code mandatory have grown. In February, the House of Commons committee studying food prices told Loblaw and Walmart that if they wouldn't agree to a voluntary code, the committee would recommend it be made law.

Speaking on conference call on May 1 to discuss the company's latest financial results, Bank had said he was "cautiously optimistic" that an agreement could be reached.

The call was on the same day some Canadians said they were going to start boycotting all Loblaw-owned stores as frustration mounts over higher food prices and concentration in the grocery sector.

A large supermarket parking lot, with vehicles and people milling about, is pictured.

The boycott, organized by a Reddit group, is currently underway. The organizers posted several demands for their movement; at the top of the list was for Loblaw to sign the grocery code of conduct.

The negotiations over the code predated the boycott, said Bank, so the announcement "has nothing to do with their demands." But he recently had a meeting with boycott organizer Emily Johnson and said he's sure she will be happy to hear that Loblaw has agreed to the code.

Though food inflation has been an industry-wide phenomenon, sparked by global pressures like the war in Ukraine, for many, Loblaw has become the poster child for food inflation in Canada.

LISTEN | The anger behind the Loblaws boycott:

Front Burner394:43:20How Loblaw inspires anger, boycott

The day after the boycott began, Bank and Loblaw chairman Galen Weston pushed back on what they called "misguided criticism" of the company.

"As a well-known company and Canada's largest grocer, it is natural that Loblaw would be singled out as a focal point for media and government and of course consumer frustrations," said Weston at the grocer's annual meeting on May 2.

Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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