Where are supermarket products sourced?

More and more of our groceries are coming from overseas.
 
Learn more
 
 
 
 
 

02.Impact on food producers

In the past, if you had a bad year, you could balance it out the next year. We can’t say that now. There’s far more [produce] in Australia than we can actually sell because of all the imports coming in.
- George Anderson*, vegetable farmer

Research by Roy Morgan in 2009 suggests Aussie shoppers rate local products highly, with 89% saying it is important the food they buy is Australian and 82% saying it’s important this food is packaged in Australia. Similarly, 83% of CHOICE members surveyed in 2011 told us that buying Australian-owned is important to them.

While Coles and Woolies claim their buyers only look to overseas markets when local suppliers are unable to meet demand, farmers tell a different story.

George Anderson* has been a vegetable farmer all his life. If you’ve ever purchased a basket of fresh veggies from Woolworths, chances are you’ve probably eaten produce from his Tasmanian farm. If you haven’t, your chances are fast diminishing. In more than 30 years of farming, Anderson says things this year are particularly dire.

Anderson estimates up to 50,000 tonnes of potatoes and a further 20,000 tonnes of other vegetables, including carrots and onions, will go to waste in Tasmania this year. He says this is due to increasing numbers of imports arriving on our shores.

 

Sign up to our free
e-Newsletter

Receive FREE email updates of our latest tests, consumer news and CHOICE marketing promotions.

 

“The situation we’re in now is probably the worst I’ve ever seen,” he told CHOICE. “In the past, if you had a bad year, you could balance it out the next year. We can’t say that now. There’s far more [produce] in Australia than we can actually sell because of all the imports coming in.

“Farming in Australia is going backwards by the week. You’ve got very few major processors left here, so the product has to come from overseas. If things keep going the way they are, people won’t have a choice when it comes to frozen and tinned goods because there won’t be any Australian produce left to buy.”

Woolworths affirms its commitment to the future of rural Australia on its website, but our analysis of its processed fruit and vegetables – the kind you find in tins or in the freezer section – suggests otherwise. Of the nine frozen vegetable categories we looked at, 13 of the 14 Woolworths private label products were sourced internationally. Similarly, 19 of their 21 tinned fruit and vegetable products came from overseas.

While the frozen potato products from market leaders we examined were made in Australia, the same can’t be said for Woolworths branded products. Frozen chips across both the Select and Homebrand tiers, as well as Woolies’ potato wedges are processed in the Netherlands, some 16,000km away.

Coles also sources some frozen and processed vegetables from overseas, but this year has moved towards Australian produce across a range of frozen goods, including corn, broccoli and peas – a move Coles says has been well received by customers.

By invite only

“You can’t expect the big two to be benevolent organisations, but there are extremely significant farms in this country that aren’t even being given the opportunity to bid for their contracts,” says William Churchill, spokesperson for Ausveg, the Australian farming industry body. “I know some of the biggest bean growers in this country weren’t even aware of [private label] contracts.”

Woolworths says its tender process for private label goods is by invitation only – something farmers believe is less than ideal. “We don’t find out – it is not a public document,” says Mitch Ball*, a Tasmanian farmer who supplies Woolworths with fresh produce year round.

“The challenge for the government is working out how they can level the playing field. We’re as good as producers anywhere else in the world yet we are going broke.”

Churchill agrees more must be done to connect private label supply contracts to Australian growers and processors. “I’d love to see [tenders] advertised on the web so they could be promoted to farmers.”

Up to standard?

Dr Mark Zirnsak is the director at the justice and international mission unit of the Uniting Church of Australia. In his capacity as a social justice advocate, he investigates complaints about food processing plants overseas.

Woolworths and Coles both have an audit system in place to ensure overseas manufacturers maintain workplace standards in line with the UN’s International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which calls for just and favourable working conditions. However, Zirnsak argues announced visits and lack of information about sourcing locations indicate a lack of transparency.

“It’s great when a supermarket chain has a strong code, but it needs to be backed by proper auditing, which would include unannounced inspections and talking to workers without management being present, which is currently not the case with many companies,” he says.

* Names changed

 
Your say - Choice voice

Make a Comment

Members – Sign in on the top right to contribute to comments