So you're in the meat aisle of the grocery store, looking for some chicken.
The price for two boneless breasts is nearly $8.
Is that a fair price?
It is a reasonable question to ask, given that chicken prices in Canada are fixed by the supply management regime – not at the store level, but by what producers get paid for their chickens at the farm.
This floor price affects the cost of chicken throughout the supply chain, from meat-packing plants to restaurants and grocery stores.
There is both good news and bad news on the fairness question.
First the good. Ontario, the chicken price-setter for the rest of the country, is rewriting its pricing formula to better reflect what it actually costs farmers to raise chickens.
The bad news is that the province will continue to let the chicken industry craft its own pricing scheme. And the details of the proposed new formula, like the old one, remain a closely guarded secret.
That's troubling because Canadian consumers already pay substantially more for chicken than people in much of the world, most notably Americans.
In 2012, retail prices for whole chickens were 75 per cent higher in Canada than in the United States, and the gap was 52 per cent higher at the farm-gate, according to figures compiled by Restaurants Canada, whose members buy $2.5-billion worth of chicken a year.
The lobby group for the country's restaurant industry has been pressing the Ontario Farm Products Marketing Commission, a provincial regulator, to release details of the new formula, along with the workings of the old price mechanism to help it evaluate the proposed changes.
Restaurants Canada said it was told the information was "proprietary" and that they should file an access-to-information request, according to Rick Hall, the association's federal policy director.
"We don't know the current cost of production. We don't know what the amendments are. We don't have any idea, whatsoever," Mr. Hall complained. "On what basis are we supposed to provide commentary? It's laughable."
Commission chairman Geri Kamenz denied it hasn't been open to suggestions, pointing out that consumer groups – including restaurants – have had ample opportunity to be heard.
He did acknowledge problems with the current price formula, which he likened to a "black box" that few people understand. He said that's precisely why the commission has been prodding farmers for the three years now to come up with a fair and transparent pricing scheme.
"If you, as a concerned consumer, were trying to figure out how the product is priced now you would throw up your arms in frustration," Mr. Kamenz said. "That's just not good enough for the 21st century."
The commission is hoping the new system, initially promised in 2013, will be in place by February, 2015. And if anyone isn't satisfied they can bring their complaints back to the commission. "It is not the end of the road," Mr. Kamenz insisted.
Pricing is considerably more transparent in the the dairy industry, which along with eggs and turkey, is also part of the supply management system. The Canadian Dairy Commission, a federal regulator, consults regularly with retailers, restaurants and the public. Its cost-of-production formula is independently produced, audited and publicly available.
In Ontario, the price of live chickens is now set by tallying up three things: the cost of chicks, the price of feed and a fixed profit margin for the producer. But the details of how these various components affect the price and change over time are closely held by the Chicken Farmers of Ontario, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The plan now is to incorporate data from surveys and several "model" farms to get a better handle on true costs, including cheaper and more efficient feed techniques.
Restaurants argue that if the old formula was faulty, they and all Canadians may have been overcharged, possibly for years. And if so, they are entitled to rebates, Mr. Hall said.
A common-sense solution to this Kafkaesque dilemma would be to dismantle supply management and move to the kind of market-based pricing system that exists in other farm commodities.
Short of that, Canadians deserve fair, transparent and independently set prices, not a black box.
And the governments that continue to coddle this farmer-run regime should justify to Canadians the steep premiums consumers are paying at the checkout counter.