Whistleblowers can give supermarket evidence in confidence

05:36, Feb 14 2014

Whistleblowers wishing to give evidence about alleged unfair business practices by Countdown will be able to do so confidentially, the Commerce Commission has confirmed.

The assurance comes after Labour economic development spokesman Shane Jones used parliamentary privilege to accuse Countdown of demanding retrospective payments from suppliers to cover the supermarket chain's past losses. If they did not pay they risked exclusion from the supermarket's shelves, he said.

The Food and Grocery Council confirmed it had received reports from members of such requests.

However, Countdown rejects the accusations.

The matter is being investigated by the Commerce Commission but Jones today said the investigation would be hamstrung by a "culture of fear" which would prevent suppliers from speaking up.

"The only way they'll be able to talk to the Commerce Commission is if they have anonymity," Jones said.


His call was backed by Prime Minister John Key, who said anonymity should be granted if it was the only way of ensuring a proper investigation.

The commission confirmed today anyone who had information relevant to the allegations could request that the commission keep their identity and the information provided by them confidential.

"The commission will not disclose the identity and/or information unless consent is given or the commission is required to by law," the Commission said in a statement this afternoon.

"If confidentiality is a concern then it should be raised when first contact is made with the commission."

The commission had not launched a full investigation, but was looking into the substance of the allegations and whether they constituted a breach of the Commerce Act.

A spokesman for the Food and Grocery Council said they welcomed the fact that submitters would be granted anonymity, saying it would encourage more people to come forward.

The spokesman confirmed that the first reports from suppliers about the alleged demands for retrospective payments were made this year.

Board Chairman Pierre van Heerden had raised the issue multiple times with Progressive Enterprises prior to Jones raising the issue in Parliament, he said.

The Food and Grocery Council would give evidence to the Commerce Commission, he said

Key said today the inquiry needed to be thorough but fair to both parties and in principle, people should be able to give evidence anonymously due to the dominance of the supermarkets.

"If people can't feel that they can give evidence on a basis which would allow for a fair investigation then we should look for another way, because in the end what everybody wants here is the facts," he said.

It was understandable there was concern among suppliers because of the dominance of the two major supermarket companies, Progressive Enterprises and Foodstuffs.

Key also raised concerns that any blowback against Countdown would hurt New Zealand suppliers who relied on the supermarket to sell their products.

"At the end of the day this could have quite a major impact on Countdown and actually ultimately the companies that supply Countdown," he said.

Last night more than 5000 people had "liked" a Facebook page calling for a boycott of Countdown.

New Zealand relied on its exports and any Buy New Zealand campaign like that being run by Australian supermarkets could end up making matters worse, Key said.

"In the end, New Zealand's 4.5 million people are selling things to billions of people ... around the world and if we get too protectionist in New Zealand, while it might feel good in the short term, in the long term we just run the risk that there is retaliatory action around the world and we don't benefit from that at all," he said.

Key again queried why Jones was not backing up his claims without the protection of parliamentary privilege.

"He's so confident, it was an incredibly strong speech and very strong accusations," he said.

"If he is right there's absolutely no risk to him saying it outside Parliament."

Countdown said there was no basis to the claims.

Dave Chambers, managing director of Countdown-owner Progressive Enterprises, said he had called in his senior colleagues on Wednesday to ensure none were making demands without his knowledge, before denying the allegations.

"We've got nothing to hide and we believe nothing to fear as well," he said.

While negotiations with the company's 1200 suppliers were at times "robust", the company did not seek additional payments after a deal was made, or to renegotiate deals, he said.

"If we buy 10,000 cans of baked beans from Wattie's, and we only sell 8000, we're left with 2000, that's our problem," Chambers said.

"We have a deal and we stick to a deal.

"Discussions with suppliers happen every single day ... and at the end of the day we believe they're transparent and fair."

Fairfax Media