'Disgusting!' Government leaked info of businesses opposing supermarket duopoly

By Will Trafford

Māori TV can reveal the government watchdog conducting an inquiry into the nation's supermarket chains has suffered a major data fail, leaking the confidential details of food suppliers advocating for competition in our supermarkets.

In a move described as "disgusting" by one small business owner, Te Ao Māori news has spoken to suppliers of the country’s two big supermarket chains Foodstuffs (New World and Pak’nSave) and Woolworths (Countdown and Fresh Choice) who say their products were dumped by retailers, after confidential submissions for the Commerce Commission's (ComCom) market study into the grocery sector, were uploaded to the ComCom website.

The grocery investigation was launched in November 2020 amid revelations Aotearoa has amongst the highest food prices in the developed world, with producers saying they weren't getting a fair deal. Contributors were told identifying information would be redacted before their submissions were published - to avoid reprisal. That didn't happen, instead personal info of those that submitted to the enquiry were uploaded to the Commerce Commission website, for anyone to view.

‘It’s disgusting, it's absolutely not on.’ one supplier speaking to Māori TV said.

The woman found out her details had been leaked by the commission via email. She had a follow-up call in which the watchdog said it had inadvertently made personal information available in two separate incidents on their website. More than three different submitters have since told Māori TV they too were affected.

Booted out

The woman who has been retailing in both chains for several years says the consequences of the leak for her business after her submission was made public were dire, her products were dumped from Foodstuffs shelves in a move she thinks was not coincidental.

“That's what speaking up gets you, booted out,” she said, another whistleblower adding 'it was the whole point of this being anonymous'.

The woman says Foodstuffs never made reference to her submission, saying the choice to drop the products came due to waning consumer demand, she rejects that, saying her sales were actually on the rise.

“My customers have been saying ‘Why aren't they restocking?’ she said.

Following the supplier revelations, Māori Television reached out to another contributor to the inquiry, an Iwi-led consortium looking to challenge the big two supermarket chains with their own, kaupapa Māori stores. The group's rep says the story was eerily familiar, she says they were approached by the Commerce Commission this month, saying Foodstuffs lawyers had applied to get the records of a meeting where the consortium discussed their view that the industry needed more competition.

OIA request

“[Foodstuffs] has requested an OIA (Official Information Act request) on our transcripts from the hui,” she said

"I suppose they can do what they want, but how can we have any confidence in this process?"

Late Wednesday the commission confirmed the data breaches to Māori TV in a written statement saying they first discovered them in December and "reached out" to those involved via email and phone to apologise.

“We became aware of two incidents where metadata relating to communications identified individuals. We removed the personal information from the metadata and reached out to the affected submitters,” they said.

The commission declined to say how many contributors were embroiled in the leak, but confirmed a separate incident where a submission was published, with personal info in clear view, rather than just in metadata.

“We proactively took down the submission and contacted the submitter to explain the situation,” a spokesperson said.

The supplier whose products have been dropped says they know they’re not the first business to get the short end of the stick by the supermarket giants, citing Foodstuff North Island’s decision to drop dozens of products from iwi-owned commercial fisher Sealord last year, in favour of multi-national Birdseye.

‘Same old, same old, p*** them off and you’re out. The Commerce Commission should have understood that; they should have taken better care.”

On September 24 last year, the government extended the report timeframe for the Commerce Commission’s market study into supermarket competition. The watchdog is required to publish its final report by March 8 this year.

Māori TV asked Foodstuffs for comment, they did not respond within deadline.