Watchdog eases retailers' buying rules to ensure food available

ACCC relaxes supermarket buying rules so food supplies get through

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Competition rules on sourcing produce relaxed to ensure equitable distribution.

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SUPERMARKETS have been given permission to bypass competition rules which would usually exist to prevent market collusion.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has allowed retailers to co-ordinate sourcing activities so consumers get fair access to groceries.

The ACCC has granted interim authorisation letting supermarkets co-ordinate with each other when working with food suppliers, manufacturers, and transport and logistics providers during the coronavirus emergency.

The regulator said the decision aimed to ensure the supply and fair and equitable distribution of fresh food, groceries and other household items to consumers, including those who were vulnerable or lived in rural and remote areas.

However, the authorisation did not allow supermarkets to agree on retail prices for products.

Allowing these businesses to work together to discuss further solutions is appropriate and necessary at this time - Rod Sims, ACCC

"Australia's supermarkets have experienced unprecedented demand for groceries in recent weeks, both in store and online, which has led to shortages of some products and disruption to delivery services," said ACCC chairman Rod Sims.

"This is essentially due to unnecessary panic buying, and the logistics challenge this presents, rather than any underlying supply problem.

"We recognise and appreciate individual supermarket chains have already taken a number of important steps to mitigate the many issues caused by panic buying.

"Allowing these businesses to work together to discuss further solutions is appropriate and necessary at this time."

The authorisation applied to the Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Metcash networks, but could extend to any other grocery retailer wishing to participate.

Alternatively, grocery retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and transport groups may choose to opt out of any arrangements offered.

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The ACCC's interim authorisation, invoked on Monday afternoon, provides statutory protection from court action for conduct which might otherwise raise concerns under the competition provisions of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.

Mr Sims said the ACCC had flexibility to grant such an authorisation if it was satisfied the public benefit from the conduct outweighs any public detriment.

"We have worked very swiftly to consider this interim authorisation application, because of the urgency of the situation, and its impact on Australian consumers," he said.

The decision was prompted by recommendations from a supermarket taskforce convened by the Department of Home Affairs to help resolve issues impacting supermarkets.

Representatives from government departments, supermarkets, the grocery supply chain and the ACCC are on the taskforce.

The ACCC will seek feedback on the decision from suppliers or consumers who are invited to comment via the commission's public register.

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