Jim Cormier, Atlantic Canadian director for The Retail Council of Canada, said the cost of fresh produce in Newfoundland is anywhere from five to 25 per cent more expensive than elsewhere in Canada.
Although some increased cost is to be expected because of the ferry, he feels the federal government and the Crown corporation could reduce the cost by prioritizing fresh food shipments.
“We understand everybody can make a justification to say, ‘The load I’m bringing is more important.’ We’re saying we’re in the business of feeding people, and we’re trying to feed them good healthy food,” said Mr. Cormier.
Delayed produce shipments result in greater spoilage rates. This forces retailers to throw out spoiled food and increase the cost on what remains to make up the cost.
His association, which represents many of the major grocery chains in Atlantic Canada, would want the priority to apply to both fresh produce and fresh meats. They are not asking for the privilege on shipments of dry goods or non-perishables.
Although he was quick to applaud Marine Atlantic on its recent vessel upgrades, he said the increased capacity has not completely solved the problem of perishables waiting for days in North Sydney.
“From what my grocers are telling me, there’s still about 40 days a year where (shipments are held up at North Sydney). That still ends up costing a lot of money to grocers.”
He said those costs are inevitably passed on to consumers.
Marine Atlantic Spokesperson Darrell Mercer issued a written response to questions about giving fresh food priority.
He confirmed Marine Atlantic has spoken with the Retail Council of Canada on the issue.
“We have confirmed with them that Marine Atlantic has no intention of returning to a commercial reservation system at this time without the support of their members and the trucking industry,” wrote Mr. Mercer. “We recognize that all of our customers have product that often requires urgent attention and we have committed to working with the Retail Council of Canada and other groups in developing options to get their product across the Gulf as quickly as possible.”
Mr. Cormier said he understands many average citizens are quick to blame the grocery stores for less than stellar produce and increasing food costs. He doesn’t believe they deserve all the blame.
He said grocery stories make their money by marking up products just pennies above cost and selling larger volumes. He said they even take losses on some products to draw people into stores. This is in contrast to retail outlets which have markups of 30 to 50 per cent, and sometimes more.
Even in this province, he called the market “hypercompetitive” with several big players competing against one another and keeping prices low.
“If you were trying to reflect the real cost to get refrigerated perishables the price of refrigerated perishables should be at least 50 per cent higher than they are now.
Mr. Cormier said giving priority to fresh food shipments would not cause a big disruption to ferry traffic, and would not be an expense to the government as food subsidies in Northern Canada are.
He also brought up the terms of confederation, which promise Newfoundlanders comparable basic services as the rest of Canada.
“What is more basic than the ability to feed the people in your province?” he asked.
Burgeo-La Poile MHA Andrew Parsons heard a presentation by Mr. Cormier on this subject at a Marine Atlantic stakeholders’ meeting in June. He said he was receptive to Mr. Cormier’s message.
“I was just sort of staggered when I heard what he had to say and watched his slideshow,” said Mr. Parsons.
He added that he sees another problem with getting fresh produce to people on the southwest coast.
“The fact is, with everything comes off the boat there’s a small percentage that goes directly to the stores,” said Mr. Parsons. “Most of it goes to the larger distribution centres to be redistributed.”
Mr. Parsons said that means fresh food is sometimes being sent across the island before it finds its way back to store shelves. His understanding is that the distribution centers for grocery retailers are mainly on the east coast because that is where most of the island’s population is.
He’d like to see produce come straight off the boat and into local stores.
“I’d like for the different parties to speak about it,” he said. “If there’s a way it can be done without significant cost, they owe it to us.