Land of Plenty

In my last post I wrote about Australia exporting our own fresh produce and importing poorer quality substitutes. A few days later Dick Smith was in the news on the same platform. Of course, Dick has always been an advocate of Australian food, with his own brand of Australian food products.

The latest addition to his product range is canned beetroot – the announcement came as he was on his way to Cowra, in NSW, to save a beetroot crop that was about to ploughed into the ground, yet another victim of cheaper international competition. Dick Smith paid the farmer out, booked the crop in to the only Australian-owned cannery (Windsor Farm Foods, also in Cowra), and we will (hopefully) see the product on supermarket shelves soon.

I suspect there was a little bit of a publicity stunt involved in this story, but he does make a very good point.

As well as all the imported “fresh” produce I discussed in my last post, so many of the canned and frozen fruit and vegetables in Australian supermarkets are from overseas. Often consumers don’t even realise that they’re buying an imported product, often they don’t even care.

Most canned tomatoes in our supermarkets come from Italian tomato farms, and there are ethical concerns over the human rights violations going on at some of these farms. Unfortunately, these tomatoes are MUCH cheaper than the competition, and have pretty pure ingredients (most of these cans are just tomatoes, water and salt).  The only canned tomatoes made in Australia (and ‘Made in Australia’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘Grown in Australia’!) are the Ardmona brand – and they are so full of flavourings and preservatives I won’t buy them.

Golden Circle used to be the iconic Australian canned food brand – they were bought by Heinz and now a lot of their products are produced overseas. I grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, and about 10-15 years ago local pineapple farmers were struggling because Golden Circle started cancelling their contracts. One pineapple farmer down the road from us ended up broke, living in his shed and selling pineapples for $2 at his roadside stall because the “Aussie” brand started buying cheaper pineapple elsewhere. He grew really good pineapples too.

Granted, Golden Circle still sells some Australian-grown produce, such as their canned baby beetroots; but, as with Ardmona, the ingredients are now so full of Numbers that I don’t want to buy them.

Angas Park (which, incidentally, has just been bought by a Chinese company) is another culprit – the once iconic Aussie dried fruit brand now imports a lot of their products from overseas. Just today I noticed their new range of ‘gourmet crispbreads’ in the supermarket. One of the products looked pretty tasty, so I read the ingredients – all good, whole food items, no preservatives, no processed garbage. The packet was on its way into my basket, but then I saw ‘Product of Israel’ and put them back on the shelf.

I used to be happy to buy items that were ‘Product of New Zealand’ if no Australian option was available – I figured, they’re close enough and at least it’s a clean, nuclear-free country. Now it’s become apparent that New Zealand imports a lot of its fresh/frozen produce from China – so ‘Product of New Zealand’ (once it’s imported to Australia) might not be that true. You can read a New Zealander’s great blog post on this issue here.

This seems to be the trade-off here. You’re offered either expensive, home-grown produce, full of the dreaded Numbers; or cheap, international produce, that isn’t full of garbage, but has dubious ethical or hygienic origins (food safety standards aren’t the same in every country).

Forget trying to figure out how imported produce, with added ‘food miles’, is cheaper than Australian-grown produce… making the right choice on health or ethical grounds is enough to herd you straight to the paracetamol aisle (we’ll probably see boxes of headache pills hanging next to the canned/dried/frozen shelves before too long – another success of ‘matched produce’ marketing!).

Good on Dick for buying Cowra beetroot. I hope Woolworths and Coles take their hearts out of the frozen vegetables cabinet and stock his cans on their shelves. I hope Dick expands his Aussie fruit and veg range further, and stops putting unnecessary ingredients into his Aussie produce (if Sanitarium can make perfect peanut butter from 100% Chinese peanuts, and nothing else, then surely Dick can make equally-perfect peanut butter from purely 100% Australian peanuts…no added ‘vegetable oil’, no added sugar, nothing…).

And I hope he buys the faltering Shepparton Cannery while he’s at it.

As for Australia – well, we need to get some priorities straight.

It’s a two-way street. We can’t complain that Australian consumers aren’t buying enough home-grown produce…and simultaneously complain that a) poor global finances made us ‘chase the cheapie’; and b) health problems that are linked to poor quality food (i.e. Numbers) are on the rise.

Australian olives growing happily near Mildura, Victoria ... but don't try looking for them on any supermarket shelf.

© Manu Saunders 2011

One thought on “Land of Plenty

  1. krankywitch January 24, 2012 / 1:01 PM

    Agree so very wholeheartedly with what you say here.

    Just one thing to note: the GC beetroot still doesn’t have any ‘numbers’, just beetroot, water, sugar, food acid (vinegar), salt & spices. They wouldn’t dare change it – Aussies would stop buying it as soon as the flavour changed even a micron. 🙂


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