REDUCING PRICES: Racquel Harrison of Cocoyea Supermarket Ltd in San Fernando re-tags some food items with lower prices yesterday as grocers around T&T rushed to meet the deadline of Government's Value Added Tax (VAT)-free list. –Photo: DEXTER PHILIP

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VAT-FREE FOOD FRENZY

November is here......Supermarkets rush to change prices on 'confusing' list to beat deadline

By Kim Boodram

CONFUSION reigned yesterday as grocers rushed to change prices in keeping with the new Value Added Tax (VAT) exemptions on food items.

They also complained the list was "quite confusing".

A number of grocers in downtown Port of Spain said yesterday they were unclear on which items were to be changed because of the wording of the Government-issued list, and they had hoped for some type of Government consultation before today's VAT-free deadline.

"Honestly, we are not too sure, but we are trying to generalise the items and change the prices," said the grocery supervisor at FHS United Supermarket on Independence Square.

"There are a few things that seem to be duplicated, but when the list talks about products derived from some foods, we are not too clear on what products they are talking about," she said.

Another grocery supervisor said they were concerned about not meeting the list in its entirety, due to this confusion, and stand to be accused of attempting to rob customers.

"We have heard from Ms Wendy Lee Yuen (chairman, Food Distributors Association) that there will be inspectors going around the groceries to check if we changed our prices," the supervisor said.

"We hope we get everything right because we don't want anyone saying we are being dishonest. This is why someone from the ministries should have started liaising with groceries from the time they made the announcement, to make sure we understand what we are doing," she added.

Some foods mentioned on the list, such as mayonnaise, potatoes, onions and chicken sausages, were already VAT-free, the supervisor said.

"If you look around right now, you will see that people come here every evening and pick up basics—bread, sausage, cheese, tuna. There was no VAT on those things. So some people will not see the difference until they shop for groceries at month end."

In the background, grocery workers were busy re-tagging shelves of goods and those customers in the shops at the time got a preview of what their grocery bills should look like from today.

"I am not seeing anything too special," said Charlene Paul of Morvant, looking at workers changing the prices tags on tins of Grace Red Kidney Beans from $6.99 to $6.25.

"At the end of it, I might save $20 on my average month-end bill. Well I suppose that is something."

A scan of grocery shelves yesterday showed that prices on some items were yet to be converted.

Pepper sauce, which grocers said was supposed to be included in the "mustard-based products" on the VAT-free list, was priced between $8.99 and $19.99 and is expected to be a few cents lower today.

Various brand of oatmeal, a breakfast staple, were priced between $9.99 and $15.99 and should be lower today.

Pineapple juice was priced at $14.99, Swiss Peanut Butter at $33.99 for the largest size, Ghee at $59.99 for 400 grammes and Blue Band butter at $10.99 for a medium tub. All are expected to show reduced prices today.

Canned salmon will be reduced from $17.99 and $23, and a variety of "sweet" biscuits will be reduced, some by ten cents.

"People who pack lunch for their children should be saving a few dollars a day," the supervisor said. "Biscuits and juices are being reduced."

Pack juices of different sizes showed prices ranging from $3.99 to $15.99 prior to the changes.

The VAT-free move was announced by Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar at a People's Partnership pre-budget rally in Chaguanas on September 29. The move was declared to be temporary and is meant to reduce the average citizen's food bill and therefore reduce inflation.

The plan was met with scepticism from several quarters, including Central Bank Governor Jwala Rambarran, who said it will likely have a "one-off effect", as prices will still, after the initial reduction, become subject to market conditions and will re-assert themselves.

The Opposition People's National Movement called out the Government for attempting to deceive the population, saying hundreds of basic food items were already VAT-free.

Concerns were also raised by the Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers' Association, which said some of its goods are subject to VAT upon importation or purchase locally—a cost it will still have to absorb after the list is implemented.

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