seeking and creating stories about people,
places, events and opportunities
offering savvy but simple, flexible and effective
ways of communicating your message

     published  article


Can of worms made overseas
By Jane Milburn
Courier Mail, 2 August 2005

Pears, peaches, apricots, walnuts, sweet corn, tomatoes, garden peas, baked beans, nuts are the new international travellers.

They are being grown in countries on the other side of the world that collectively spend an estimated $US300 billion a year subsiding food production, then transported halfway round the planet and are poised for purchase in a supermarket near you.

Tomatoes from Italy, sweet corn from Thailand, garden peas from Belgium, stir fry vegetables from China, baked beans from the UAE, pears and broccoli from South Africa, apricots from Turkey, dates and walnuts from the USA, cashews from India.

A search of tinned and frozen fruit and vegetable products in the big two supermarkets suggests up to half are either labelled as being produced in a foreign land or carry the label of “made in Australia from local and imported product depending on seasonal availability”.

Then there is the small-goods label that has Australian Owned Australian Made Since 1905 next to an Australian flag on the front and on the back its says “made in Australia from local and imported ingredients”.

In the big two supermarkets, it is not possible to find a can of baked beans that is assuredly produced in Australia from Australian navy beans. Nor is it possible to find dried fruit that is definitively Australian. All packages appear to carry the disclaimer about being a mix of local and imported product depending on availability.

Some labels even use the country of origin as an up-front selling point, such as Italian Roma tomatoes, Dutch baby carrots or Californian pistachios.

Consumers have benefited from reducing food prices that have seen the cost of food, as a percentage of household budgets, dropping … but at what price?

The Australian Food and Grocery Council says the food business is incredibly competitive, with some product from China being landed in Australia at below the wholesale price here.

When food is produced overseas, consumers don’t necessarily know what’s in it or whether it adheres Australia’s high standards across a range of factors.

Australian vegetable producers can see their future being buried under a pile of imported food, sparking the Tasmanians to launch a four-week campaign through country Victoria and New South Wales en route to the national capital.

Grower group AUSVEG says the Australian vegetable industry, worth more than $2.5 billion per annum, is at serious risk and has set up a $2 million national fighting fund to lobby for a level-playing field and ensure that imported produce is grown and packed under the same standards as Australian.

AUSVEG says it has evidence that vegetables with higher then acceptable levels of residues are being imported and called on the Federal Government to undertake an independent review of pesticide residue testing of all imported vegetables.

New Federal Agriculture Minister Peter McGauran is picking up the signals and has asked for more information from the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics about how much imported produce is being sold in supermarkets.

But Shadow Agriculture spokesman Gavan O’Connor says Minister McGauran’s call for an ABARE report is a smokescreen and that the National Party has presided over a “deplorable” record during the past five years where the rate of growth of food imports has greatly outstripped growth in food exports.

McGauran has said Australian farmers receive only 4 percent of their income from public assistance while European farmers are being subsided by more than 32 percent and American farmers by 21 percent.

Australia can’t afford to underwrite its primary production, even if it wanted to. That’s why President George Bush’s recent challenge to the European Union, that if they get rid of subsidies so would America, was most welcome. This line was obviously reinforced by Australian Prime Minister John Howard during last month’s US visit.

Australia is a minnow in the international food scene and there is some concern that global supply chains may be bypassing Australian agriculture and food manufacturing. This means we, as a nation, will steadily import more and more fresh and processed food, from First, Second and Third-World countries.

Disquiet about food labelling issues is therefore growing.

This was inflamed earlier this year when Food Standards Australia New Zealand released a draft report proposing that unpackaged produce did not need labelling and country of origin information would only be made available at the consumers’ request.

FSANZ is responsible for developing, varying and reviewing standards for food available in Australia and New Zealand covering labelling, composition and contaminants.

It is a partnership between 10 governments (the Australian Government, Australian States and Territories, and the New Zealand Government) and is a statutory authority under Commonwealth law and an independent, expert body.

FSANZ’s case for recommending the dilution of labelling information is based on the premise that country of origin is not a public health and safety issue, and its existence could be considered to be trade restrictive or favouring domestic products over imported products.

This sparked a rapid response from politicians, with Senator Ron Boswell declaring the Coalition Government will continue to require country of origin labelling on non-packaged goods (such as fresh fruit and vegetables, nuts and seafood) and Queensland Premier Peter Beattie writing to FSANZ saying the Queensland Government did not support its proposal.

An amended FSANZ discussion paper is to be released later this year and will ultimately be signed off by the Australian and New Zealand Food Regulation Ministerial Council.

There is little doubt that consumers want more, not less, information about where their food comes from and that country of origin labelling will be more important as global supply chains ship more foreign-produced food on behalf of dominant supermarkets.

These supermarkets are following the lead of those in the EU and the US by moving to house brands sourced from supply chains in the world’s lowest-cost locations, that can, for example, land jam from Denmark at half the cost of Australian made.

In attempting to stay competitive, at least three Queensland food manufacturers are understood to now import most if not all of their raw material such as strawberries, tuna oil, garlic, ginger, juice concentrates etc. And most food ingredients (colours, flavours, enzymes, stabilisers, emulsifiers etc) are all imported.

Australia simply does not have the scale, at farm or factory, and our labour costs are high. To counter these limitations, the Australian Food and Grocery Council says Australian food companies have to be a lot smarter and concentrate on higher-value production that offers nutrition and health advantages to consumers.

Australian food companies have to adjust and adapt, using research and development, innovation and value-adding.

But while imported frozen and tinned fruit and vegetables appear to have stolen the march on local equivalents, fresh produce is still largely home grown except for seasonal niche fruit imports of mangoes, lychees and cherries.

Woolworths is vocal in its support of Australian farmers, recently advertising its claim that 97 percent of Woolworths fresh food is grown in Australia and they are working on the other 3 percent.

But this is juxtaposed with the new Woolworths Select brand of tinned fruit and vegetables. The pretty food labels on the front of the tins are backed by Made in Italy, Product of Thailand, Belgium, China etc. It is the same in the frozen section with Belgium, China, USA and New Zealand origin product featuring prominently.

Things are no different across the road at Coles with frozen brocolli from South Africa, peas, beans and corn from New Zealand etc.

In reality, we now live in a global economy and no amount of protection and impassioned pleas to “buy Australian” are likely to have any meaningful effect on consumption patterns.

The majority of consumers do not have time to scrutinise labels or the financial resources and commitment to routinely pay a premium for supporting Australian farmers and food manufacturers. This is a moving feast, with more challenges ahead for the sector.

Jane Milburn is a freelance writer and agribusiness media consultant.


© Copyright 2004 Milburn Media  -  Site by Vieve