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