As our reputation soars, food fakes follow



Australia enjoys positive perceptions in rapidly growing Asian markets as a clean and green producer of wholesome, natural and trustworthy food products – and consumers are willing to pay a premium for the comfort this brings them.

Figures out last week confirmed that the Chinese appetite for beef has reached unprecedented levels. Australian beef exports to China are up 73 per cent on last year, making it our biggest export market.

And money is no object, with Chinese consumers are prepared to pay hundreds of dollars a kilogram for the right cut of steak from a country they trust.

However, often they don’t get what they think they’re buying.

Research by PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) estimates that every second kilogram of ‘Australian’ beef sold in China doesn’t come from Australia – and may not even be beef.

Counterfeiting by low cost producers in third world markets has been a challenge to many major corporations and fashion houses for decades. However, fashion goods are not the only targets for brand cheats.

Over recent years, food fraud has become increasingly commonplace. Food fraud is essentially the sale of an inferior product represented as a more valuable one. This could be through substitution, dilution, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging.

High-value and high-demand foods are particularly at risk of counterfeiting. Brands known for quality may be targeted with fake labelling and branding. Certain labels like ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ that attract a premium price are also popular targets. However, origins can be difficult to trace, resulting in fraudulent use of these labels.

We’re all familiar with food fraud that takes the form of passing off one product as something more up-market. For years, Nile perch has been passed off as Australian barramundi; generic green leaves have been marketed as oregano; and prawns from Thailand and Vietnam have been sold as local product. This can also include deliberate fake country of origin information – for example, labelling snow peas from Nigeria as locally grown. Or, as we saw last year, dodgy honey. Testing at a leading international scientific lab that specialises in honey fraud detection found that almost half the honey samples selected from supermarket shelves were “adulterated” -in other words, mixed with something other than nectar from bees.

The upside of this means there are opportunities in export markets for Australian farmers and food producers to take advantage of strong demand for our products and, in many cases, to achieve a significant price premium. The downside is that unscrupulous traders want to cash in on these opportunities by muscling in with copies of many of our well-known brands.

This is wrong on so many counts.

Because it is designed to be undetected, it is difficult to know the true reach of food fraud, but there is no doubt it is a lucrative practice.

Calling out cheats is not just about protecting reputations and profits. As importantly, it is about maintaining brand integrity, and ensuring food health and safety.

The ramifications if someone got sick or died from a counterfeit product would be huge. No doubt those affected would sue; and regulators would come down on the legitimate producer like a ton of bricks. Even if they could prove the offending products were fakes, bad publicity could destroy them.

When we buy food, we take it on faith that the product matches the label – but these continued revelations about fake food products have left many people questioning this trust.

All consumers have the right to be able to tell at a glance the origin of their food and where it has been processed. And we need to be able to rely on transparent and simple labelling to help us make informed choices.

Imitation may well be said to be the sincerest form of flattery.

However, when it comes to our fabulous Aussie food products, it is simply theft. We need to take every possible measure to ensure that our brands, and our producers, are strongly protected from opportunists trying to cash in on their hard work and investment.



Farm trespass laws long overdue

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In January this year, animal activist group Aussie Farms posted a map of Australian farms on its Facebook page.  The online map shares the location and contact details of thousands of Australian farmers. The group said it wanted the public to be able to see where their food comes from.

At the time, the industry said the map was nothing more than an “attack list” for activists – and they were right.

Since the map went live, there has been a dangerous rise in activist intrusions on agricultural properties.

In one high profile case, owners of the family-friendly Gippy Goat Farm and Cafe in Victoria, announced the closure of their cafe following a long streak of targeted “harassment”.

The closure followed an earlier incident in December where a group of individuals stole three goats and a lamb, with one person involved being fined $1 last month for each theft, and ordered to pay $250 compensation.

Farmers have had enough.

For many farmers, their property is their business, their workplace, and their family home. When animal rights activists illegally trespass on private agricultural properties, it’s not just farmers’ privacy that is at risk. These home invasions threaten the safety of farming families and workplaces, the biosecurity of farms and even entire industries, and the welfare of livestock. In some cases, these invasions could even have implications for food security.

Australian farmers adhere to world-leading animal welfare standards. In most cases, they are law-abiding responsible citizens. The animal activists are the ones breaking any number of laws. Yet the penalties imposed on them come nowhere near to reflecting the risk imposed on farming businesses and families.

Governments and law enforcement agencies must take a harder stand against the actions of animal activists and ensure that legal protections and punishments are reflective of the danger they pose. As the frequency of these incidents increases, farmers are unable to operate their businesses and go about their lives for fear of being the next animal activist target.

If this level of unacceptable law-breaking behaviour was occurring in the city, there is no doubt we would be seeing more urgency and response. Meaningful and effective action is needed to ensure farmers receive the fundamental protections anyone should have the right to expect in a civil society.

Farmers are rightly outraged when they see their homes can be invaded in the dead of night, with live streaming on the internet, animals disrupted and stolen,biosecurity protocols ignored, and people put out of work – only for offenders to walk away with nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

This issue is red-hot among farming communities that are sick of seeing privacy and property rights take a back seat to activist agendas. Everyone has the right to feel safe in their own homes and to go about their lawful business without harassment. That doesn’t change just because you live on a farm.

The farm trespass laws promised by the federal government are long overdue. While this outrageous behaviour is allowed to continue, our legal system is failing farmers and all those who live in rural communities. Society is the loser; the anonymous bullies, hypocrites, and law-breakers have won.

When will enough be enough?

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The Victorian government announced recently that it will undertake yet another review into the handling of the glyphosate (Roundup™).

Much of the opposition has been based on a report by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in 2015 which claimed to find evidence that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”. That report has now been discredited.

No other herbicide has been subjected to as many rigorous tests and investigations as glyphosate and there is no scientific proof that it has harmed anyone.

The US Agricultural Health Study has been tracking 89,000 farmers who use glyphosate for 23 years. It has found “no association between glyphosate exposure and all cancer incidence or most of the specific cancer subtypes evaluated.”

The effectiveness of glyphosate as a weed killer is unprecedented.  It has reduced the total volume of pesticides and herbicides needed to grow Roundup-resistant crops; enabled the introduction of minimum tillage production systems which have protected soil structure; improved soil moisture retention; and increased soil carbon storage.

At the same time, there is clear evidence that it has kept millions of people alive because we’ve been able to sustainably produce more food and fibre from finite resources of land and water.

Experts estimate that banning glyphosate would have significant effects on world well-being. There would be an annual loss of global farm income gains of US$6.76 billion; a net increase of 8.2 million kg pa of herbicide usage; additional carbon emissions equivalent to adding 11.77 million cars. As well, land use changes to meet demand for increased croplands would create an additional 234 million tonnes of CO2 emissions. And global welfare would fall by US$7,408 million per year.

In 2017, the European Food Safety Authority completed a comprehensive reassessment of glyphosate, and determined there was no credible evidence that it causes cancer in humans.

Australia’s evidence-based, scientific approach to regulation ensures that each agricultural chemical product is thoroughly and independently assessed by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) prior to registration and supply.

In 2016, the APVMA conducted an exhaustive study commissioned by the federal Department of Health. This study included review of risk assessments undertaken by expert international bodies and regulatory agencies. The conclusion was that glyphosate does not pose a carcinogenic risk to humans and there are no grounds to place it under formal reconsideration.

Yet the alarmists persist.

Sadly, we live in an age where rational science-based evidence struggles to stand against ill-informed opinion; and the divide between those growing food and those eating it is stark.

We are repeatedly told to trust the science on climate change. However, it is often the same people who will not accept the science which categorically has deemed this product safe.

Some chemicals are highly toxic in very small doses. Glyphosate is not one of those. Its LD50 – the lethal dose for 50% of rats in testing – is 5,600 mg/kg. The LD50 for caffeine is 192 mg/kg.

Hope you enjoyed that morning coffee.



A burning issue

roadside verges 0118 Greg Gibson

Summers in Australia are made of many memories: holiday food comas, cricket on the radio, long days by the beach or the pool, pink zinc, late afternoon thunderstorms.

They’re also punctuated by all sorts of warnings: road safety, slip slop slap, snake bite treatments, shark bite risks, how to recognise a rip, keeping safe during fireworks – the list seems endless.

Bushfires have been top of the list of summer risks for generations – but we’re now seeing fires occurring earlier and earlier each year. Dry seasons exacerbate the dangers of fires, and the past year has been one of the driest on record for many parts of our wide, brown land. Even though officially it is still only spring, we can’t be complacent, as over recent weeks bushfires have been reported across the country. Overseas,  TV news has been filled with coverage of catastrophic fires burning in California.

As we move into the summer months, we should all be remembering the summer of 2013 when a wild and windy 40C scorcher fanned fires that burned through 120,000 hectares and 170 buildings around Dunalley and on the Tasman Peninsula, with many other fires burning across the state.

Experts have confirmed that 2017 was globally one the three hottest years on record. In Australia, we experienced the hottest summer and winter seasons since 1910 when national records began. And the statistics for 2018 look likely to show a continuation of those trends.

Bushfires are a fact of life in Australia. Climate change, drier soils, and an abundance of vegetation dictate fire seasons are going to start earlier and continue longer each year. And no-one is exempt. Fires can reach into the middle of cities as well as devastate rural communities. So we all have a responsibility to be prepared.

At the start of every summer, we should all be looking at the potential hazards in and around our properties, minimising the risks wherever possible, and preparing a plan of action in case a fire blows our way.

Frustratingly, though, complacency is all too common – and, as a community, we remain frighteningly unprepared for these all-too-predictable risks.

The situation is actually worse in Tasmania than in most other states.  Well over half of the state is now owned by local and state governments – whether that be national parks, public reserves, or road verges. And these governments therefore need to understand and commit to their roles as responsible land owners – just like the rest of us.

Governments must undertake the same sort of activities as any other land-owner would to ensure fires don’t start on their property and, if they do, that there are control measures in place to minimise impacts on adjoining neighbours.

I’m not just talking now about the risks that come from unmanaged bush and forest. Although these are severe, the risk is often to farms and rural communities, and can to some extent be disregarded as ’out of sight, out of mind’. We’ve gone beyond that and lack of good management practices by governments can – and most likely will – impact on us all.

Anyone who has been for a drive lately will have seen what I mean. All across the state, road verges are overgrown, with dried vegetation just waiting for a spark to start a conflagration. Even where there has been some maintenance, it is often limited to mowing just a few metres on the edge of the road.

We all have a duty to support measures that protect our community from the ravages of bushfires and the inevitable heartache it brings. We all have a duty to minimise the risk we present to ourselves and to our neighbours.

Both state and local governments must also be held to account to meet basic land owner responsibilities – just as would be the case for any other land owner in any other situation.  This has to include management of vegetation on roadside and boundary environments, and commitment to meeting shared fencing and other rehabilitation costs.

Coming together in the face of disaster is an underpinning strength of our community. This requires recognition of shared obligations and a shared trust that everyone will do their bit. Sadly, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that point.

And that is simply not good enough.

Photo courtesy of Greg Gibson – taken on the Bass Highway.

Foods of the future

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We’ve all heard the prediction that by 2050 there will be 9.6 billion humans living on Earth and they will all need to be fed. Experts say that, to meet this demand, consumption of animal products will increase by up to 70 per cent – and we’ll have to produce these foods using the same limited resources that we have today.

Many experts have been considering exactly how we’re going to meet these expectations, with all sorts of imaginative solutions coming off the drawing board. A report from CSIRO this week has also taken a look at the top food trends we can expect to see as we move into the next decade.

Protein is an important part of healthy eating. It’s made up of amino acids and plays a vital role in repairing and building bones and muscles in our bodies. In the ASEAN region in particular, non-meat protein sources like tofu and eggs are becoming ever more popular. But even when we consider alternatives to animal protein, we have finite land space for growing crops.

The thought of eating insects like maggots, beetles, caterpillars and ants may give you the creeps, but experts say they may be the food of the future. Insects are high in protein, found everywhere and reproduce quickly. Importantly, they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint.

Pea protein milk is being produced as a dairy substitute, vegan cheese and chicken-less egg whites are also in various stages of development.

Protein substitutes from algae are also becoming more prominent.  Algae such as spirulina and chlorella are commonly found in the obscure corners of health food shops, but in the future are expected to move into the mainstream. Edible jellyfish are already popular in other parts of the world, including China.

‘Meat-free meat’ such as plant-based burgers and lab-grown meat are already on the market. However, getting costs down to a level competitive with the real deal is a major challenge. Plant-based seafood will not be far behind.

GM foods have been around for decades, but so far there has been no reason for consumers to be keen on them. Virtually every GM crop currently on the market is designed to help the farmer who grows it, rather than the person who eats it.  Now that’s starting to change.

From health benefits to increased flavour and longer shelf-life, the new generation of GM foods are being designed with the consumer in mind. CSIRO refers to this trend as ‘health by stealth’.

Some of these products are already available and appearing on our plates, and others will soon show up on our shopping lists.

We’re still learning about all the effects our gut microbiome has on our health but we know it is important to keep it in check. So foods that promote a healthy gut is all the rage.  Kombucha, kimchi and tempeh are pretty commonplace now, but we’ll no doubt see more fermented food, food with added probiotics, and food high in resistant starch popping up on the supermarket shelves.

Other healthy eating options on the menu of the future include things like coeliac-friendly wheat which contains only “good” gluten, potatoes that don’t produce acrylamides when fried, rapeseed oil rich in beneficial omega-3, apples that never go brown, higher fibre white bread, and much more.

CSIRO is ahead of these trends, with a high-fibre wholegrain that can be made into brekky cereal, wraps and bread. It is designed to deliver gut health benefits that can help combat cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.

Up to three per cent of children in western countries are allergic to peanuts. Scientists are also focussed on finding ways to turn off the genes that code for the main peanut allergens.

CSIRO also pointed out that the increased technology in our lives makes monitoring what we eat and our exercise regimes via our smart phones and watches easier than ever. This means we can access more personalised health information tailored to us and our lifestyles.

Imagine if this data could be generated from your individual DNA? Enter precision nutrition, where nutritional advice moves from being tailored but largely static, to real-time and personalised with the aim of preventing and managing chronic disease.

There’s no doubt that the future of food will be very different– and that means we’re going to have to get used to seeing all sorts of weird and wonderful things on our plates.

From the paddock, not the supermarket

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I am told the golden rule in journalism is to never make assumptions. In particular, when writing about a topical subject, one should never assume that people know the background to the subject. In other words, SPELL IT OUT.

It is an adage that we might well apply to farming.

I was reminded of this when sorting through a pile of reports in my office. One was a survey undertaken for the Primary Industries Education Foundation a few years ago.

This study confirmed that Australian students don’t know where their food comes from – which was no surprise to those of us who work in the agriculture sector.

In this world, milk doesn’t come from cows; it comes from the supermarket. Less than half the students knew that everyday lunchbox items such as bread, cheese and bananas originate from farmed products; three quarters of Year 6 students thought cotton socks were an animal product; and more than one quarter thought yoghurt came from plants.

These figures were reinforced by a survey released recently by News Corp Australia.

This showed that a quarter of youngsters think fruit and vegetables come from the supermarket, and 6 per cent think they come from “the fridge”. Only 1 in 10 children knew that they are grown from seeds.

Only 22 per cent of children aged 6-8 years could identify 5-6 vegetables in their raw state; and 12 per cent could only identify 1-2 raw vegetables.

All this when the OECD says Australia is the fifth fattest country in the world, and one in every four kids is classed as overweight or obese.

Nation-wide polling commissioned by the National Farmers’ Federation last year could well explain why this is so.

This study found that Australians have grown disconnected from where their food and fibre comes from.  More than 80 per cent of those surveyed described their connection with farming as ‘distant’ or ‘non-existent’.

It also found that most people are totally unaware of the economic contribution farming makes. Presented with a list of six industries, only 4 per cent of respondents correctly identified agriculture as the fastest growing sector.

This result highlights a real urban myth – that agriculture is a thing of the past, a sunset industry. In reality, it is a cornerstone of Australia’s economic future. In fact, nationally the industry is on track to be Australia’s next $100 billion industry, having reached a record $60 billion farm gate return last year. The industry also supports 1.6 million jobs across the supply chain.

And the story is no different in Tasmania.

Agriculture is the fastest growing sector in our state, and it is growing much faster than on the mainland. Our farmers generated more than $2.5 billion at farm gate last year, and a further $4.1 billion came from processed food.  The industry is aiming to increase the annual value of the agricultural sector to $10 billion by 2050.

According to Fiona Simson, President of the NFF, the problem is that people simply don’t know they have skin in the game.

Most people assume that the industry only benefits people in the bush. In reality, the bulk of jobs supported by the farm sector are in the city, in fields like retail, food service, logistics, finance and more.

“Farmers don’t just grow your calories, they grow your salaries,” Ms Simson said.

While food and fibre production is largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, farming produces all the essential ingredients in every meal on our plates, every natural fibre on our backs, and many other important facets of our lives.

This growing disconnect between town and country is serious – and it really can’t be ignored any longer.

We live in one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Food is relatively cheap. Everyone takes it for granted and we’re quite complacent about our well-being.

The end result of being so separated from our food is that we really don’t place enough value our farmers. People should understand how far their food travelled, how it was produced, and the value of farmers and farmland in our communities.

Australian farmers are efficient producers of food and fibre; and in many areas we export more than we use domestically. However, there’s no guarantee that will always be the case.

There used to be a bumper sticker around some time back that said that ‘if you’ve had a meal today, thank a farmer’. And we should.




Bringing in the harvest

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The debacle arising from the federal government’s on-again-off-again changes to backpacker tax rates and visa classes over the last couple of years has resulted in serious labour shortages for seasonal and short-term work such as fruit picking and packing. Many areas reported a rapid decline in backpacker numbers last season – in some areas, it is estimated by as much as 40%.

Without a reliable workforce, growers end up leaving crops unpicked. And that’s not an outcome anyone wants to see.

Amid this serious labour shortage, agriculture groups have been calling for a special agricultural visa to lift the flow of foreign workers, including from Asia.

And, initially, the response from the federal government was positive. However, the usual gaggle of armchair experts rapidly came out of the woodwork, arguing that farmers should be replacing foreign workers and backpackers with people on the dole. This week the government backed away from the new visa proposal, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison instead launched an initiative to move local workers into farm jobs.

Speaking in support of the new program, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack said “the government is working to ensure there is a strategic and targeted ­labour force to help farmers and country communities pick the fruit and finish harvest when and where they need it,”.

On farms around the country, eyes rolled over breakfast tables and growers mentally started re-programming their seasonal work schedules.

It is clear from this outcome that the government simply does not understand the reality of a modern intensive farm.

In their world view, farmers are employers of last resort. They should have to take anyone, no matter their qualifications or their work ethic. Yes, of course, send your cannon fodder down on the farm; we’ll absorb them in the paddock somewhere, out of sight, out of mind, off your agenda.

Well, it doesn’t quite work like that.

You see, farmers are actually running businesses in a very competitive environment and with extremely low margins. They’re lean and mean because they have to be. Properties that once supported 20 or 30 staff are now run by the farmer, their spouse and perhaps one of the kids and a part-time employee. When they do require casual labour, they need the best they can get.

They want reliable people who turn up every day on time, who know what they are doing, who work fast, who don’t get distracted by their mobile phone or Facebook, who understand that farms are dangerous places, and who appreciate the importance of the relationship between the work they do and the outcome for the farmer. They don’t want people who don’t want to be there, and who need constant supervision. They don’t want people who turn up stoned. They don’t want people who aren’t prepared for physical work, or who can’t (or won’t) follow basic safety instructions.

The reality is that jobs such as fruit picking are not unskilled occupations. They require skill, speed, experience, and pride in the final product. This is even more important today because often what they package in the orchard or the paddock is the final form of presentation to the market. In other words, this is what determines the end price a farmer will receive for their products.

Furthermore, these are not full-time jobs – by its very nature, the work is seasonal. And work is often located in rural areas far from concentrations of unemployed people. The costs and disruption of relocation and transport for short-term jobs are huge disincentives, especially those who may have families.

These are the reasons why foreign workers and backpackers dominate in this sector. They are not interested in full-time jobs or a career; they are driven by the incentive to work fast and well, and they are often experienced at what they do.

Governments – and politicians – cannot abrogate their responsibilities for dealing with important social issues like unemployment. There are many options for addressing the significant issues identified in ensuring we encourage those who can work to do so; but, at the same time, maintaining a resilient and sustainable welfare safety net.

Farmers are very aware of the key role they play in supporting local communities – but they are running businesses and it is not their job to deliver social welfare outcomes.

That’s something for which we all need to take responsibility.