Empire Co. tight-lipped as IT problems affect pharmacies at Sobeys and other stores

HALIFAX — Empire Co. Ltd. remained tight-lipped Tuesday about computer system issues that are still impeding customers seeking prescriptions at some pharmacies it operates.

The Nova Scotia-based company issued a brief statement Monday confirming that an "IT systems issue” affecting certain pharmacies has caused “technical difficulties” in filling prescriptions.

Issues at Empire-operated pharmacies, including Sobeys pharmacies and Lawtons Drugs, were first reported over the weekend, and some locations in Halifax Tuesday had signs posted 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.

Empire did not respond to questions Tuesday about the cause of the IT problem and has not said when it expects it to be resolved. In its Monday statement, the company said it remains “committed to the continuity of care for all its pharmacy patients.”

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.

“The issue here is probably the same as what we saw last year in Newfoundland: a ransomware attack,” she said in an interview Tuesday. A ransomware attack is when hackers steal or encrypt sensitive information and demand a payment to release it.

Genge said the scale of Empire's system outage and the lack of public communication from the company lead her to believe that this type of cyberattack may be behind the technical problems.

She said it would not be surprising for Empire to keep relatively quiet about the IT problems if the company were working on a plan to restore the system or negotiate with a possible cyber attacker. “They tend to not talk about things until they’ve got it sorted out,” she said of organizations facing ransomware attacks.

With about $30.5 billion in annual sales and 130,000 employees, Empire's stable of retail outlets include 1,598 stores under a number of different banners, including IGA, Safeway, Foodland, FreshCo, Needs, Thrifty Foods, Rachelle-Béry and Bonichoix.

"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 the Monday statement.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2022.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Lyndsay Armstrong, The Canadian Press