Food Price Report - cover - © 2024 - Agri-Food Analytics Lab

‘Canada’s Food Guy’ Called ‘Gaslighter’ (Updated)

Why does ‘everybody’ hate Sylvain Charlebois these days? He’s the Dalhousie University professor who fronts the annual Canada’s Food Price Report. And soaring food prices have made the grocers look bad…

Sylvain Charlebois - mug - © 2024 - Grocery Business magazine

Charlebois recently contributed an opinion piece to Canadian supermarket sector trade magazine Grocery Business. Titled: ‘Let’s Give the Theatrics a Rest in 2024’, the article takes a hard line on current efforts to resolve the food price crisis. The word ‘greedflation’ appears prominently – in the second paragraph. But the real thrust of the piece is a poke at the federal government.

“At a time when food inflation has become a political battleground, it’s tempting for politicians to target the grocery industry. Sadly, that’s exactly what transpired this year in our country, and it was both ridiculous and embarrassing. The government and Parliament relentlessly hounded grocers, drowning out the opportunity for Canadians to truly comprehend the intricacies of food inflation amid the cacophony of political theatrics.

“The recent greedflation campaign speaks volumes about the collective amnesia regarding why companies exist and the power of market forces. The sustainability of the grocery business in Canada hinges on profits and a profound understanding of the market dynamics.”

Not what you might expect

You may well have expected that Charlebois would come down solidly on the side of consumers, scolding grocers for their record profits last year. And add his voice to those demanding food price caps and – ultimately – reductions.

If you read carefully, the article is not a condemnation of the supermarket biz. At most, it’s a cautious justification for its apparent insensitivity to the plight of millions of Canadians who can’t afford to put enough descent food on their tables.

In fact, Charlebois takes a strip off the government: “Many politicians this year have demonstrated a limited grasp of the fundamental principles governing competitive markets. In a genuinely competitive market, centralized coordination among market participants is non-existent. Ottawa’s inclination towards direct market intervention runs counter to the principles necessary for encouraging increased investment and enhancing market competitiveness.”

An ulterior motive?

Charlebois suggests, the government-orchestrated ‘theatre’ of those top-level hearings on food prices, where supermarket heads were summoned to the Capital, may have had had a secret agenda. If it had been a carefully calculated campaign to vilify the retailers in the minds of consumers, it could hardly have been more successful:

“Consumer trust is currently at an all-time low, not necessarily due to the industry itself but because it has been weaponized for political gain. Despite this, we should be grateful to our grocers for their unwavering commitment to feeding Canadians and providing one of the most affordable and safest food baskets globally, even if some politicians have conveniently forgotten or chosen to ignore this fact.”

Social media storm

When the op-ed hit the mainstream media, the social media quickly picked it up and sent it viral. And the ordinary folks, who congregate and share their opinions on platforms such as X (formerly Twitter) and Reddit, were quick to flame Charlebois as an apologist for the grocers.

Angry posters called his post ‘gaslighting’, and condemned it as ‘out of touch’. “This is about survival,” Redditor MisterZergling wrote. “Not about companies being the best little companies they can be.”

There is, in fact, a Reddit group called ‘Loblaw’s Is Out of Control‘ (LOC). It claims its 17,000 members are, “devoted to highlighting the ridiculous cost of living in Canada right now.” Much of the vitriol aimed at Charlebois came from that quarter.

My take

One of the problems Charlebois faces in his food price monitoring effort is the misconception, in the eyes of at least some consumers, that the program is funded, in part, by the grocers. “We are not funded by any grocers, ever in fact.”

But the professor is adamant his efforts are genuine. And that the economic conditions the grocers claim are tying their hands over prices are real.

“People who simplify the problem of greedflation will point to grocers,” he told Yahoo! Canada. “As soon as you suggest there’s no profiteering going on, because there’s no evidence of that … you’ve sold your soul to the devil.”

But he says the issue of price fixing and profiteering is more important than attacking grocers over economic factors they can’t control. Remember the bread price-fixing scandal a few years back?

“There’s a culture of price fixing in the industry. And if people aren’t concerned about that, then I got nothing,” he insists.

~ Maggie J.

UPDATE: This post was updated at 6:12 am (EST), February 15, to clarify a statement which suggested the Agri-Food Analytics Lab has received funding from grocers. It does not, and never has. – M.J.)