The retail planning guidelines in the Irish Republic, which effectively outlaw the development of large UK-style superstores, may be lifted in a bid to encourage competition and curb rising prices.
Enterprise and employment minister Mary Harney signalled a rethink when she cited the planning curbs as one of the factors inhibiting competition in the grocery sector and contributing to high inflation.
She also mentioned the Groceries Order, which bans below-cost selling, though that is unlikely to be changed as it was renewed just over a year ago.
Harney was responding to a call for action against what Richard Bruton, spokesman for the opposition Fine Gael party, termed "the massive rip-off" of consumers by supermarkets and other shops. Figures from the Central Statistics Office, he said, showed wholesale food prices at factory level had fallen 4.7% over the past 12 months. But retailers' prices in the same period had increased 2.7%.
"Who is pocketing these bloated margins?" he asked. "On food alone, the extra cost to the average household is E500."
Consumer affairs director Carmel Foley said it was time for retailers "to offer an explanation, if they have one".
However, the rip-off claim was disputed by RGDATA, the independent grocers' group, which said food price inflation at 2.7% was around half the general inflation rate. Director general Ailish Forde said "removing the Groceries Order or tinkering with the retail planning guidelines will merely increase the dominance of the large multiples".