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.