Bush Matters Op-Ed – “Reclaiming the message”

31 October 2014

The increased appetite among consumers for quality food ingredients has been a mixed blessing for Australian farmers.

On one hand, our undoubted and unrivalled attention to detail and quality has increasingly resulted in a premium price in the domestic and international marketplace.

But it has also forced Australian agriculture to open its paddock gate like never before and answer an ever widening scope of questions about the way farmers produce their commodity, particularly food.

This interaction between producer and consumer can take many forms.

In the most extreme and alarming form, it involves illegal trespass by extreme green activists, who feel they had a right to be on private property.

On a more general basis, it involves assuring our major buyers that our product is meeting and exceeding community expectations.

Far too often the message gets deliberately muddled somewhere between the paddock and the plate, which enables extreme green activists to strike.

Unable to offer anything of substance, these activist groups claim legitimacy by dividing and clouding the information channels in the business supply chain.

This was more than apparent last year when Coles Supermarkets agreed to sell 15,000 shopping bags produced by extremist group Animals Australia.

As many will remember, the bag displayed winged pigs with the caption, “believe in a world without factory farming”.

The concept was for the bags to be sold in 500 metropolitan Coles Supermarkets.

It would have been a major publicity victory for the animal rights extremists had a clear and concerted grassroots protest campaign by Australian farmers not disrupted the plan.

Aussie landholders were able to shine sufficient light on the murky intentions of Animals Australia to lead Coles to unceremoniously dump this unwarranted political baggage.

It is clear that Australian agriculture’s sustainability and production credentials are underpinned by credible, independent scientific analysis.

But if we are unable to convince our major buyers of these credentials, industry can quickly become caught in the marketing crossfire.

Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than with the supermarket duopoly.

In the cut throat and low profit margin world of the major supermarkets, farmers are being expected to endure a tightening price squeeze at the farm gate whilst maintaining, and indeed exceeding, the expectations of the rest of the supply chain.

The supply chain can quickly become a shackle that binds the Australian farmer.

We have seen the latest example with Coles’ decision to introduce its own pasture-fed beef quality standard.

The decision has sparked anger across the beef industry because it adds another certification process that producers will now have to confront, which is separate to the P-CAS pasture-fed standard that has already been adopted by Woolworths and Teys Australia.

The Pasture-fed Certification Assurance System (P-CAS) was industry led – it was developed by MLA and Cattle Council – which only proves Coles’ decision is not based on any scientific logic – it is simply about gaining an upper hand in its never ending marketing duel with Woolworths.

So yet again we see farmers suffer as collateral damage in the supermarket war.  Adding new layers of certification only adds cost and can only hinder business decisions for producers.

Ultimately we have to ask ourselves – what purpose does an auditing and quality control process serve if it is only going to be undermined by our major buyers?

No one is arguing that there should not be scrutiny over the process to ensure it maintains world class.

But Coles has previously shown poor judgement in its willingness to climb into bed with animal activists with little scrutiny to the proclivities of its bedfellow.

And it is again showing poor judgement by forgoing industry expertise in its business decisions.

Earlier this year myself and Senator Ron Boswell initiated the Square-table meeting to combat attempted infiltration by the World Wildlife Fund  because there was a clear case that the Australian beef industry was losing the information battle against McDonalds and that extreme animal rights groups were gaining the upper hand.

Both the cases involving McDonalds and Coles show that even when we have the scientific proof on our side, we need to take a more aggressive stance in marketing this information to our customers.

This latest decision by Coles shows there is still much work to be done.

But, in the meantime, I would urge the company to return to the negotiating table with industry and reconsider this current decision, lest we might have to dust off our campaigning skills and bring them back for public account.