22 Mar 2014

Supermarket code seems doomed

8:46 pm on 22 March 2014

The Government's push for a voluntary code to pressure supermarkets to treat their suppliers fairly seems doomed before it has even started.

Countdown logo

Photo: RNZ

Talk about introducing a code has emerged after the Commerce Commission announced it is investigating allegations of anti-competitive behaviour against Countdown supermarkets, part of the Progressive Enterprises chain.

Commerce Minister Craig Foss is keen on a voluntary code and expects Progressive and Foodstuffs to lead the way. But the supermarket giants have made it clear they won't.

Craig Foss.

Craig Foss. Photo: NATIONAL PARTY

In a written statement, Progressive Enterprises managing director Dave Chambers says negotiations are best led by the Retailers' Association and the Food and Grocery Council.

Foodstuffs, which is not being investigated, says it already has a clear set of supplier partnership guidelines. Group communications director Antoinette Shallue says in a statement it is founded on Foodstuffs' promise to act with honesty, fairness, integrity and courtesy in all its dealings with suppliers.

"As such, we have confidence that our internal processes and policies are achieving an outcome that's broadly comparable to that of an industry code of conduct. But we are open to further discussion with the New Zealand Food and Grocery Council about any concerns they may wish to raise with us."

Craig Foss says he is encouraged that the companies are already thinking about a code and is looking forward to discussing the idea with all participants, including relevant industry associations, over the coming weeks.

But Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich says supermarket suppliers are not interested and the council is focused solely on the Commerce Commission investigation.

"We're concerned that any speculation as to a political situation right now might have an impact on that investigation, particularly when it comes to witnesses coming forward."

Clayton Cosgrove.

Clayton Cosgrove. Photo: RNZ

Ms Rich says the council won't be taking part in discussions about a voluntary code.

"We've already indicated that we don't think it's appropriate to meet while the Commerce Commission investigation is going and, certainly depending on the outcome of the Commerce Commission investigation and having had a chance to look at what their findings might be, then it will be a chance to have a look at what some solutions might be."

The Retailers' Association also believes that the Government should wait until after the commission's investigation is completed.

The Labour Party's commerce spokesperson, Clayton Cosgrove, says Mr Foss risks threatening the integrity of the inquiry.

"This is a minister who's just decided to jump on the bandwagon. He shot his mouth off and, in doing so, he may well have neutered the Commerce Commission inquiry.

"If parties feel that the minister's cozying up to the group that is being complained about, they may feel there's no point in coming forward to a government agency."

Even once the investigation is over, the Government will be hard-pressed to get wide industry support for a voluntary code of conduct.

Katherine Rich says the Food and Grocery Council - whose members are at the centre of allegations that Countdown has engaged in unfair behaviour - opposes the idea altogether.

"It's never really worked in any other jurisdiction. It was tried in 2001 in the UK, it was found to be completely useless and that's why they moved to a mandated code."

But Ms Rich says that doesn't mean the council supports a mandated code as well and, for the moment, it wants to see what comes out of the Commerce Commission investigation.