Sobeys silent on cause of ongoing 'IT systems issue'

A sign for pharmacy customers is shown at a Lawtons Drugs in Halifax on Tuesday Nov. 8, 2022. Sobeys remains tightlipped about the computer system issues that are still posing a challenge for customers seeking prescriptions at some of the pharmacies operated by Nova Scotia-based Empire Co. Ltd.. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lyndsay Armstrong
Sobeys has not said what caused the IT systems issues that are still posing a challenge for customers seeking prescriptions at some of the pharmacies. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Lyndsay Armstrong) (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Sobeys, the country’s second largest grocery retailer, remained silent on Tuesday about the IT systems issue that continues to create difficulties filling some customer prescriptions.

Empire Co. (EMP-A.TO), the parent company of Sobeys, first issued a brief statement on Monday, notifying investors and the public that its stores had been impacted by an "IT systems issue" that had created technical difficulties with some in-store functions, including the fulfilment of prescriptions. Since then, the company has declined to answer several requests for comment from Yahoo Finance Canada, including to clarify the cause of the "IT systems issue", when it began, or whether any customer information had been put at risk.

"Our sole focus right now is on getting this problem rectified and we will provide further updates as relevant information becomes available," Pierre St-Laurent, Empire's chief operating officer, said in Monday's statement. A spokesperson for the company referred additional questions to the original news release.

Issues at Empire-operated pharmacies, including Sobeys pharmacies and Lawtons Drugs, were first reported within stores over the weekend, and some locations in Halifax Tuesday had posted signs warning customers of the ongoing technical problem. "Unfortunately, at this time we are unable to access your records to fill a prescription," a sign at one pharmacy counter said.

Anne Genge, the CEO of Alexio, an Ontario-based cybersecurity company that specializes in health care, said the situation is reminiscent of the cyberattack that targeted Newfoundland and Labrador’s health system last year. While there is no indication at present that the Sobeys issue is from an outside attack, Genge said the scale of Empire's system outage and the lack of public communication from the company lead her to believe that a cyberattack may be behind the technical problems.

Sylvain Charlebois, a professor of food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University, said in an interview that cybersecurity has not been a top priority for the food industry overall. He pointed to a 2021 ransomware attack on meat producer JBS, which was forced to pay a US$11 million ransom, as an example of how companies can fall victim to cyberattacks.

"If JBS, a company that is four times the size of Sobeys, can fall victim to a cyberattack and get forced to pay a ransom, it can happen to any business," he said.

"It could be a wakeup call that the agri-food sector in Canada needs."

With files from the Canadian Press

Alicja Siekierska is a senior reporter at Yahoo Finance Canada. Follow her on Twitter @alicjawithaj.

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