South Australia prides and sells itself on being the nation’s foremost epicurean destination, but its $5 billion food and wine industry – and the job generating destination marketing that rides on it – is suffering a bout of reflux following a stern ruling against one of the state’s most famous food producers.
In an action that has sent shudders across Australia’s wider destination marketing sector, the Australian Consumer Competition Commission (ACCC) recently ruled against Barossa celebrity cook and queen of verjuice, Maggie Beer, after finding labelling on some of her company’s products might mislead consumers into thinking they were made in South Australia when they were actually made interstate.
It’s far from a simple case of sour grapes.
The finding is could produce a nasty hangover for regions which have pounced on the consumer cache of celebrity chefs and their branded products, not least because as appetites increase, production is often necessarily relocated just so production can meet demand.
While established food exporters like France have strict regulations and enforcement around the provenance and production of locally branded products based on centuries of tradition, geographic regulation of Australian cuisine is a far more recent, if untested, development.
In the curious case of Maggie Beer, the ACCC took exception to the labels on all flavours of her ice cream, rosemary and verjuice biscuits and extra virgin olive oil – all of which were made in Victoria – and also with the company’s aged red wine vinegar, which was made in Queensland.
The regulator ordered the company to remove the tagline “A Barossa food tradition” from its logo and the address: “Maggie Beer Products, 2 Keith Street, Tanunda, South Australia 5352”, which it said had misled consumers into thinking they were made in Tanunda, the Barossa or South Australia.
“Consumers are often willing to pay premium prices for local products and businesses are following consumer demand by stocking local goods. Protecting the integrity of credence claims made about food products is a priority enforcement area for the ACCC,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.
Credence claims relate to the characteristics of a product, such as its origins and whether it is free range, organic or environmentally-friendly.
“The Barossa Valley is a nationally recognised premium food and wine destination, and businesses in that region use place of origin claims to promote or distinguish their product from others in the market,” Mr Sims said.
“Misleading representations about the origin of products to capitalise on this demand undermines the integrity of credence claims which are relied on by consumers and, equally important, can harm competing producers whose products are made locally.”
Such labelling mishaps around provenance are no small fry for the state’s economy.
The food and wine industry employs one in five workers in South Australia and is so crucial to the state’s economy that developing the food and wine sector is one of the South Australian government’s seven strategic aims.
The Primary Industry and Regions South Australia is behind the Premium Food and Wine from our Clean Environment to push the state’s produce and provenance is central to building its brand and to charging the higher prices that go with it.
But conversely, the ACCC ruling could be a chance for smaller South Australian food producers to gain a firmer foothold in the market.
Elaine Ratcliffe, General Manager of Adelaide Farmers Market, told Government News that consumers cared a great deal about where their produce came from. She said the farmers’ market stallholders tended to be small producers, unlike Mrs Beers’ commercial operation.
The farmers’ market has recently developed the South Australian Farmers’ Market Producer Guarantee.
“We have an in-depth approval process for our products. Producers must provide details of how they produce them and they have to be made from South Australian ingredients and made in South Australia,” Ms Ratcliffe said.
“It’s more about ensuring that we have these systems in place so consumers know when they’re shopping at this market they know they’re buying directly from producers,” she said.
The state also has an Eat Local website and app and a powerful industry peak body, Food South Australia.
Since her run-in with the ACCC, Mrs Beer – long regarded as a champion of local produce – has emphatically said she had no intention of deceiving consumers.
She said that the four infringing products – which amount to just 2 per cent of the company’s range of 200 products — had originally been made in South Australia, but production was forced interstate as demand grew.
“I’m so proud of everything we do. I wish we could have kept it all within SA. But I’m using local ingredients wherever I can,’’ Mrs Beer said.
The company has since agreed to amend its labelling for the relevant products, publish an educative article in Food Magazine and review its consumer law compliance procedures.
Privately, parts of Australia’s local and international tourism industry are questioning whether the regulator’s reaction to Mrs Beer’s infraction was over-egged.
One sentiment is the ACCC action has done more damage than good because it targeted a relatively small player, whose overall brand value contributed substantially to the appeal of South Australia and Australia as a destination and exporter.
Another question being raised is whether appearance of complaints against the Beer brand, regardless of whether they are valid or not, are merely coincidence or may stem from other motivations including tall poppy syndrome.
Mrs Beer’s daughter, Saskia Beer, also fell foul of the ACCC in June this year, when she was taken to task over misleading claims of the origins of the pork she used in one of her products.
In that case, which resulted in an enforceable undertaking from Barossa Farm Produce, the regulator found that white pig meat had been used in products labelled and marketed as coming from black pigs, which the ACCC said included animals of “heritage breed” that produced “a premium meat product.”
Government News approached Barossa Council for comment but the local government said: “Council does not feel it is appropriate to provide comment as this it is not an official Council matter.”
Food SA did not comment before deadline.
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