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'Food Professor' Sylvain Charlebois criticized for 'out of touch' op-ed on groceries: 'Wish I could say I am shocked'

Sylvain Charlebois, known as the "Food Professor," insists his efforts in the industry are having a more positive impact on Canadians than some might realize.

An opinion piece in a Canadian trade magazine that encourages gratitude to grocers for keeping people fed is going viral as Canadians struggle with the cost of food and other necessities amid a cost of living crisis.

But the writer behind the piece, Dalhousie food researcher and podcast host Sylvain Charlebois, known as the "Food Professor" online, insists his efforts in the industry are having a more positive impact on Canadians than some might realize.  

The column titled “Let’s Give the Theatrics a Rest in 2024” was originally published in the December 2023 issue of Grocery Business, a B2B magazine intended for grocery retailers and marketers.

A photo of the article was posted to Reddit by a user who says they work at a “non Galen Weston grocery store” and wanted to show people a peek behind the industry’s curtain. The post has garnered almost 400 comments in two days.

“Given the recent increases I was curious on what the higher ups in the industry were saying,” smallcanadian1711 wrote. “I wish I could say I am shocked at the article I read but I’m not. I wanted to share because I think people should know what is going on behind the scenes.”

An op-ed appearing in Canadian B2B magazine for grocers is riling up shoppers struggling with a cost of living crisis. Photos: Reddit/smallcanadian1711, Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.
An op-ed appearing in Canadian B2B magazine for grocers is riling up shoppers struggling with a cost of living crisis. Photos: Reddit/smallcanadian1711, Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images.

What the op-ed says

In the piece, Charlebois is critical of the government and Parliament for going hard after grocers, saying it impacts “the opportunity for Canadians to truly comprehend the intricacies of food inflation amid the cacophony of political theatrics.”

He also states that the reason consumer trust is at an all-time low is not a result of the industry, but because “it has been weaponized for political gain.”

“We should be grateful to our grocers for their unwavering commitment to feeding Canadians and providing one of the most affordable and safest food baskets globally, even if some politicians have conveniently forgotten or chosen to ignore this fact,” Charlebois wrote.

Professor defends column: I am 'likely the most critical academic towards Loblaw'

In an interview with Yahoo Canada, Charlebois says despite what people in the comments of Reddit might think, he’s “likely the most critical academic towards Loblaw in the country by far.”

He credits his campaign work for forcing the grocery giant to keep their 50 per cent discounts, which they had recently threatened to reduce to 30 per cent.

He also says he’s been actively advocating for greater oversight from Loblaw, as recently as Tuesday, when he was in Parliament to speak to MPs about how consumers are being hard-hit by price freezes.

“People who simplify the problem of greedflation will point to grocers,” he tells Yahoo Canada. “As soon as you suggest there’s no profiteering going on, because there’s no evidence of that…you’ve sold your soul to the devil.”

Charlebois says while profiteering isn’t illegal, the bigger issue is price fixing and collusion, which needs to be addressed.

“There’s a culture of price fixing in the industry and if people aren’t concerned about that, then I got nothing,” he says.

Charlebois also addressed the controversy surrounding a $60,000 grant he received from the Weston Foundation in 2018, a point which was raised repeatedly in the Reddit post. He says the grant was intended for Dalhousie and was given to a PhD student.

“The Weston Foundation has funded over 400 academics and we’re likely the only ones declaring it publicly,” he says. “Because we’re clear and transparent, we’re paying for it.”

Canada reacts: 'Out of touch' with everyday struggles

Many in the comments of the Reddit post were incensed by Charlebois’ piece, claiming it was “gaslighting” and “out of touch.”

“This is about survival,” MisterZergling wrote. “Not about companies being the best little companies they can be.”

User yellowchaitea wrote: "That's some pretty swell gaslighting. I live in the U.S. but come to Canada regularly to visit family, even with exchange rate, it's significantly more expensive to buy groceries in Canada, and I live in a very high cost of living city in [America]."

Reddit is becoming an increasingly popular platform for people to vent about extreme grocery prices and the frustrating parts of shopping culture across Canada. The Reddit group "Loblaws is out of control," which boasts 17,000 members, is "devoted to highlighting the ridiculous cost of living in Canada right now," according to the group's description.