By LEANDRA ROLLE
Tribune Staff Reporter
ECONOMIC Affairs Minister Michael Halkitis said yesterday the government fully expects food retailers to comply with its new price control regulations and that it intends to enforce the law against operators who refuse to implement the changes.
He said he also ordered inspectors to go out and assess stores yesterday to see if they had implemented the changes.
Mr Halkitis was responding to comments made by Super Value owner Rupert Roberts, who recently told a local daily that some stores have yet to enact the revised price control regime.
According to the newspaper, Philip Beneby, head of the Retail Grocers Association (RGA), did not directly comment on the issue but when asked if grocery stores were complying with the changes, said “Let sleeping dogs lie.”
The Tribune has previously reported retailers’ opposition to the proposed price controls, with many arguing that the regime could be “the last straw” for small and medium-sized food stores.
The sector took the position that the government’s proposed price control expansion to 38 product categories cannot be enforced as negotiations over its proposed alternatives remains ongoing.
However, Mr Halkitis addressed this yesterday, explaining that negotiations do not mean that the amendments are no longer in effect.
“I saw the report in one of the dailies today and where it quoted, I think two operators basically saying that they were not following the amendments and they were under the impression that something was in abeyance, while some negotiations going on with the government,” Minister Halkitis told reporters before going to a Cabinet meeting yesterday.
“Let me just say categorically, there are no negotiations that will hold up the amendments. The amendments to the regulations are in place. We put them in place October 17. We had some discussions with retail grocers, and retail pharmacies. But we had discussions with retail grocers where they expressed some concerns. We went back and we made some adjustments.
“We increased some margins to account for perishables and to account for Family Island transportation. We thought that was a reasonable concession to some of the concerns that they raised and so for all intents and purposes, the amendments are in place and we expect them to be respected.”
Prime Minister Phillip “Brave” Davis echoed similar comments yesterday, saying, “I would expect those who understand the law to follow the law, including the grocers.”
Mr Halkitis said since the amendments were brought into force, the government has hired several price control inspectors and is in the process of employing more to send to the Family Islands.
According to retailers, price control inspectors have made no moves to enforce the list of price-controlled items or levy sanctions against retailers and wholesalers, despite their open defiance to the rules.
But, Minister Halkitis claimed yesterday that based on reports he has received, retailers have been largely complying with the new protocols.
“So far, the reports that we have been getting from our inspectors are by and large, the new margins are being respected. But in light of what we saw being attributed to some operators today, I have given instructions that the inspectors are out today to double check,” he also said.
“All right, so we fully expect, and we fully intend to enforce the law.”
The Tribune understands that stores inspected yesterday had implemented the changes on most breadbasket items.
But, for some drug items, inspectors found that prices had not changed, this newspaper was also told.
Yesterday, Mr Halkitis also sought to address the perception that the expanded regime would create more harm than good to businesses, explaining “this is margin added on top of the cost so it’s not that we’re instructing people to sell at a loss.”
He added, “What we’re saying is, you establish your cost, and there’s this margin on top of it and so we think our position is entirely reasonable.”
The government’s initial proposal capped food wholesale margins, or mark-ups, at 15 percent for all 38 product categories listed, while those for retailers were set at 25 percent across-the-board.
The move was designed to ease the cost-of-living crisis currently facing thousands of Bahamians.
The goods affected, some of which are already price controlled, were baby cereal, food and formula; broths, canned fish; condensed milk; powdered detergent; mustard; soap; soup; fresh milk; sugar; canned spaghetti; canned pigeon peas (cooked); peanut butter; ketchup; Cream of Wheat; oatmeal and corn flakes.
The remainder were macaroni and cheese mix; diapers; feminine napkins; eggs; bread; chicken; turkey; pork; sandwich meat; oranges; apples; bananas; limes; tomatoes; iceberg lettuce; broccoli; carrots; potatoes; yellow onions; and green bell peppers.
Mr Halkitis warned that those who failed to abide by the law can be liable to a fine or imprisonment.
“Where someone is convicted of violations, there are penalties under the law: $5,000 fine (or) up to 12 months’ imprisonment and this extends in the case of corporate entities to directors,” he added.