While most of us love a good home brand bargain from Coles and Woolworths, Anne Johnston wants you to consider the real cost of this consumer hunger for cheap goods.
How often do we think about where our food comes from? The closest thing to a reminder we have on our packaged eggs is that they say “free range”. It’s rare when grocery shopping to think about all the people and processes that happen before our food hits the shelves.
Alan “Swampy” Marsh, owner of Swampy’s Organic Produce, is one Victorian farmer who’s had enough of being forgotten. He only sells his organic eggs at local farmers markets because it’s the only way he can make a living without the supermarket giants taking advantage of him.
“The other egg farmers I know can’t believe that we sell our eggs wholesale for seven dollars a dozen,” Swampy said.
He pins this on Coles and Woolworths, two supermarket giants that are making Australian farmers with “money in the bank” a rarity.
Both supermarket chains have been under scrutiny from the Australian Competition and Consumer Council (ACCC) since November 2011, when investigations were started into suppliers being treated inappropriately by major retailers. Coles was being investigated for “alleged unconscionable conduct towards its suppliers.”
Coles declined to comment, but a spokesperson for Woolworths said “We have good relationships with our suppliers, including our farmers.”
“We have long-term, mutually beneficial arrangements that benefit farmers with higher volumes and customers with lower prices.”
High demand from supermarkets should usually be news that every farmer is looking for, but not in Swampy’s experience. Woolworths approached him “wanting 20,000 dozen eggs a week” that would cost $5 million, but the supermarket giant would not provide partial money as insurance.
“They want us to take all the risks, pay all the money and then they might pay you,” he said.
Alleged actions by Coles included taking money from suppliers for no reason and “using undue influence and unfair tactics against suppliers to obtain payments of the rebate,” said the ACCC report.
The ACCC was made more than aware of Coles’ influence when the council experienced difficulty gathering information for their report due to suppliers refusing to comment out of fear.
James Mathews, a representative for the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), said that Coles and Woolworths are “trying to drive a pretty hard bargain with suppliers.”
“It’s been swirling around the industry for years that they’ve been using anti-competitive behaviour or questionable conduct.”
A report from the AFGC in June last year showed that there is “growth in the supermarket sector at 4.5 per cent but food and grocery manufacturing industry (has) declined by 2.2 per cent.”
Supermarkets wouldn’t even have the product that caused their 4.5 per cent growth if it weren’t for the food and grocery manufacturing industry.
As long as there is profit, Australian farmers will still be exploited. Just as Australians are continuing to make do with cage eggs, the only way such giant corporations will listen is if we, as consumers, make conscious buying decisions.
If everyone ate a meal made from food bought at a farmers market or grown from their own garden at least once a week, Coles and Woolworths would have to pay attention.