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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 2914

Senator WILLIAMS (New South WalesNationals Whip in the Senate) (13:00): I rise to speak about a very important industry here in Australia that has been established over recent years—a rather new industry—that is really getting done over. I refer to the olive oil industry, and I know it well. The northern New South Wales town where I am fortunate to live, Inverell, saw the industry established, with many farmers and landowners planting down the countryside to olive trees. In fact we actually had our own processing factory established. Sadly, that is not there today, and now I can see why.

Let me define extra virgin olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is simply where the olives are crushed and the juice comes out—no processing, no heating, no separation or anything like that. Of all the mainstream edible oils, extra virgin olive oil is the only oil that has not been chemically or physically refined and changed. It is the natural juice of the olive. It therefore has many unique health benefits and is highly sought after by consumers.

The Australian olive oil industry has grown substantially over the last 10 years. Let me tell you more about the industry. More than $1 billion has been invested in rural Australian groves and milling plants, creating thousands of jobs. Australians consume 45 million litres per year, with consumption rising rapidly over the last 20 years to make us the highest consumers per capita outside the Mediterranean area. Australian growers have captured about 30 per cent of this market due to the outstanding quality of their extra virgin olive oil. I can recall several years back when we were importing millions of dollars worth of olive oil into this country.

But there is a problem. Most Australian olive growers are fighting for their survival, producing world-class extra virgin olive oil only to see the farm gate price slashed by more than 50 per cent over the last four years. This is mainly because they are competing with imported olive oils that are cheating by selling chemically refined olive oil with misleading labelling such as 'pure', '100 per cent pure', 'light' or 'extra light'. These names are illegal in most producing countries, including those in Europe. These deceptive and misleading products make up 45 per cent of the Australian retail market and sell for a similar price to extra virgin oil, ripping off millions of Australian consumers who think they are buying extra virgin but are buying a second-rate refined oil. For the record, 'extra light' does not mean low in fat. Refined olive oil is also being sold as extra virgin. We have a problem. We have extra virgin olive oil branded and labelled in the supermarkets, in the retail outlets, and it is not extra virgin olive oil. Of course the misleading branding and the deceptive conduct that has been carried out by those who are importing this into Australia and putting it on the shelves are actually destroying our local industry and, most importantly, deceiving the consumer.

So what is being done about this? That is the question. If you go and buy a bottle of extra virgin olive oil, have it tested and find that it is not—that it has been tampered with, processed and been through manufacturing—what is being done? What can we do to correct this wrongdoing that is being carried out in our retail outlets in Australia?

It is nothing new that the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation funded three major laboratory studies of retail oils in 2008, in 2009 and in 2010, testing 265 samples of extra virgin olive oil. The 2008 study found that 84 per cent of imported extra virgin olive oil was labelled extra virgin but was not extra virgin. I repeat that figure: 84 per cent of imported extra virgin olive oil that was labelled extra virgin was not extra virgin. The study through RIRDC in 2009 found 66 per cent of the bottles of oil they studied were labelled extra virgin but in fact they were not. It gets worse. In 2010 a whopping 91 per cent of those imported containers of extra virgin olive oil failed the test. This means that only nine per cent of imported extra virgin oil was true to label—just nine per cent. To me, that is wrong. It is misleading, it is deceptive, it is deceiving the Australian consumer and of course it is playing the major role in destroying our newly formed domestic industry—an import replacement industry that all sides of parliament surely support when we are importing millions of dollars of products that we can grow here in Australia. We are now seeing the deception carried out. Eighteen per cent of oils—all imported—were classified as lampante or 'lamp' oil. According to Australian standards and all other internationally recognised olive oil standards, lampante oils are not suitable for human consumption. Eighteen per cent of those tested were, in fact, not suitable for human consumption. This is a huge worry. So what are we doing about it? That is the question I keep asking.

At this stage, I would like to thank Lisa Rowntree from the Australian Olive Association who has been out there pushing and trying to find a solution to this problem. I thank her for briefing me and informing me about the industry. Even though I saw it in my local town, I sadly did not get close enough to learn more about this industry.

On The7.30 Report in 2008, Minister Tony Burke said:

My prime concern isn't in what sort of penalty can you whack at someone; my prime concern is making sure every consumer gets what they are paying for … We're working with industry towards that end.

That was what Mr Burke said. He went on to say:

The point that we have to get to is when somebody believes they are buying extra virgin olive oil that they are.

That was a good point, Mr Burke. I could not agree with you more. He went on to say:

… at the moment it may well be the case that the only guarantee of the quality of the product is if you are buying the Australian product.

That is another good point. We support that. He went on to say:

The tests which have been referred to by industry certainly put some very serious doubts over what people have been purchasing.

Of course they did. That was in 2008. This problem was first highlighted as far back as in 2002. I will say more about that.

First, let us see what Mr Graeme Samuel from the ACCC had to say. He said:

It is appropriate for us to investigate these issues. But it may well be that circumstances, lack of standards or the like, might make it difficult.

…   …   …

What we'll have to determine is whether under the law as it stands at the present, which is a law that prohibits producers, manufacturers, marketers from engaging in misleading and deceptive conduct, whether that law has been breached.

The tests have been carried out by the RIRDC. Their 2010 figures clearly showed that a whopping 91 per cent failed. As I said, that means that only nine per cent of imported extra virgin olive oil was true to label. Isn't that misleading? Isn't it deceptive conduct to advertise something for the consumer to buy when they will not get what they think they are getting? Surely the ACCC should act on this.

Yesterday I rang FSANZ to raise this very issue with them. Of course, they said, 'It is nothing to do with us. It is an ACCC issue. We can't enter into that field.' Well, I think that they should. The AOA, the Australian Olive Association, was informed by the ACCC late last year that an investigation was underway. Well, whoopee. We have had the investigation and had the tests done—they were government funded, I might add—and the results have been brought forward. But what has been done? This is the question I keep asking. I look forward to asking more of these questions at Senate estimates of FSANZ and the ACCC and seeing what can be done, because this is wrong in all respects. If we go to an outlet—whether it be Coles, Woolworths, IGA or whatever—we need to know that we are buying the real McCoy.

I will give you some more information. Since 2002 the Australian Olive Association has been working on the important matter of truth in labelling and the authenticity of olive oil sold in Australia. The AOA has also been active globally on this topic in collaboration with our colleagues in other countries, including the USA, New Zealand, South Africa, Argentina and Spain. In 2004 the AOA reported problems with olive oil quality and authenticity to DAFF and FSANZ and discussed this with the ACCC. It became clear on government advice that the olive industry in Australia needed to develop its own code of practice for olive oil to establish some reasonable expectations and parameters for olive oil in this country. That code was published in 2005 and, to date, over 250 brands of Australian olive oil are signatories to that code, representing well over 90 per cent of Australia's olive oil production. The development of the code was in part funded by DAFF.

This is a problem that needs to be addressed. It has been going on for years. Just an hour or so ago I spoke to the Hon. Anthony Roberts, the Minister for Fair Trading in New South Wales. He said to please send him through the information and that he would be glad to look at it straightaway. You cannot have a situation where consumers are being misled. We have heard about the great benefits of olive oil. It is very popular. It is good for your cholesterol. As I have said, 45 million litres are consumed in Australia a year—and that is growing rapidly. But the customer is being done over by misleading products that are wrongly labelled and that are not genuine extra virgin olive oil. It has lowered the farm gate price by 50 per cent over the last four years. Olive growers are going broke. The bodies with the obligation to correct this need to act. If the legislation or regulations of this place or the other house need to be changed for the ACCC to fix it then we need to change them. We need to give the ACCC the power to see that the Australian consumer is protected, that Australian olive growers and processors are protected and that they are not simply done over by people importing overseas products which are, in effect, cheating—cheating the public and cheating their competitors.

Coles and Woolworths continue to knowingly sell extra virgin olive oil that does not meet Australian standards under the brands Coles Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Woolworths Homebrand Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Remember that, Mr Acting Deputy President, if you go buying extra virgin olive oil. Coles and Woolworths both continue to sell olive oil with labels that are misleading, deceptive and not allowed under Australian standards. These are Coles Pure Olive Oil, Woolworths Homebrand Pure Olive Oil and Woolworths Homebrand Extra Light Olive Oil. This needs to be addressed.

I will conclude my presentation by saying that life is about fairness. I say it often in this place and out in the public arena. Our olive growers in Australia are not being treated fairly. The consumers, the public of Australia, are not being treated fairly. They are being misled. They are paying through the nose. They are paying for what they believe to be a high-quality product when in fact it is not. We need to act on this. You will hear more about this because tomorrow there will be some protests out the front of Parliament House. A bloke called Richard Whiting, who I have known for many years—we actually played football together in Jamestown, South Australia—is coming here, along with others, to tell the people that their industry is taking a bath. It is taking a bath because of wrongdoing, misleading advertising and misleading labelling. This is an area we really need to tighten up on. Food labelling about country of origin needs to be addressed. I saw on a shelf at home a can of dog food that had the 'made in Australia' logo—the triangle—on it. According to the label it was made from imported and locally grown content. How much of it was imported? Labelling is a big issue and the olive industry in Australia is the one copping it big time. We need to address this issue and look after and protect our own industries and our consumers.