AGRICULTURE sector complaints to and contact with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) on trading issues jumped 25 per cent in the second half of 2017.
The ACCC said it was contacted by 255 agricultural traders with complaint reports and inquiries in the July-December period last year compared to 204 in January-June.
The latest edition of the ACCC’s Small Business in Focus report showed the significant jump in agri-sector complaints and contacts was in line with a jump in complaints and contacts from small business generally.
Main complaint or contact from the agri-sector was about misleading conduct or false representation by competitors or in dealings between growers or producers with traders or processors.
They comprised 30pc of total agri-sector contact with the ACCC, the same as for small business generally, and jumped 30.5pc in the last half of the year, compared to a 52pc increase for the small business sector overall.
Next most frequent cause of agri-sector contact, at 8pc, was consumer guarantees.
Those contacts jumped 41pc in the second half of 2017, compared to the first half, and were similar to a jump of 46pc for small business generally in what appears to be a growing trend, according to the ACCC, of complaints about warranty or guarantees.
The biggest percentage increase in agri-sector contact with the ACCC was over wrongly accepted payments, with the number doubling from five in the first half of last year to 10 in the second half,
That was more than double the increase for the small business sector on the same issue.
Small Business in Focus also revealed other significant differences between the cause of complaint from the agri-sector and from other small businesses.
For example, agri-sector contact about misuse of market power dropped 40pc in the past six months while contacts from small business generally on the same issue went up 36pc.
Similarly, agri-sector contacts about exclusive dealings dropped by 80pc in the second half of the year while contacts from small business were up 10pc.
Agri-sector contacts over product safety also dropped 80pc in the past six months while those from small business rose by 5pc.
Deputy chairman Dr Michael Schaper, who will leave the ACCC in May, said the Small Business in Focus report highlighted recent changes affecting small businesses including competition law reform, the ban on excessive payment surcharges and new laws for unfair contract terms.
“Many (a third) of the businesses contacting us are at least 10 years old (and 63pc employ four or fewer staff),” Dr Schaper said.
“Despite being well established, there is an obvious need for up-to-date information and advice to deal with various competition and consumer challenges,” he said.
“As business regulation continues to evolve, small businesses are encouraged to learn more about their rights and responsibilities.
“The ACCC is always working to ensure that information and advice is readily available for business.”
While the report did not give specific reasons for the jump in complaint reports and contacts from the agri-sector, the ACCC’s agriculture unit had a busy year.
Publicity about its activities, new legislation and moves against high profile corporate targets is believed to have made farmers more aware of their rights and introduction of an agri-sector anonymous hotline has made it easier for them to dob in a competitor or trading partner they believe is not operating honestly or fairly.
The ACCC addressed horticulture and dairying in 2017, two major areas of concern regarding misuse of market power, exclusive dealings and unfair negotiations between smaller suppliers and larger companies.
A mandatory revised horticulture industry code of conduct was introduced in April and its phase-in period ends in two months.
Also, 15 compliance check notices were issued to horticulture traders across the wholesale central markets last year.
The dairy industry review got underway early last year and will be completed by the end of April and in a separate move the ACCC initiated Federal Court action against Australia’s largest milk processor Murray Goulburn over farmgate price information provided to farmers.
As well, the ACCC completed a cattle and beef market study last March.
It’s Small Business and the Competition and Consumer Act publication is a comprehensive guide to the law for small business and provides information on pricing, unfair contract terms, treating customers fairly, selling safe products and resolving disputes.
The ACCC has also recently published a guide for dairy producers and processors on how it will interpret new country of origin food labelling laws as they apply to products like cheese and yoghurt.
For further information visit accc.gov.au.
PLAUDITS are due to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) for highlighting inequities in the agriculture sector, WA’s representative on its advisory committee has said.
For the past two years former WAFarmers president and Badgingarra producer Dale Park has been the sole WA representative on the ACCC’s 24-member Agriculture Consultative Committee.
His term ends this year and the ACCC is seeking a replacement.
“I think the ACCC is due some plaudits for the work it has been doing raising awareness (about unfair competition or unconscionable conduct) within the agriculture sector,” Mr Park said.
“What people have to realise is it gets far more complaints than it has the financial resources to possibly deal with,” he said.
“When it does investigate an allegation it is a very labour intensive and very expensive operation.
“Also, particularly in relation to contracts, what many people consider unfair and what is actually legally unfair, can be two different things entirely,” he said.
Mr Park said he thought the ACCC agriculture division’s “two big reviews” last year into the cattle and horticulture industries, and the flow-on impact of its subsequent activity and publicity about them, was a significant factor in increased contact with farmers in the second half of last year.
“When we saw the results for the cattlemen we thought these blokes are up against it (trading issues not in their favour),” he said.
“But then we saw the horticulture review results and growers in that industry faced far greater issues.
“A big part of it was the system they operated under with a product that generally has a limited life and no checking.
“At least with cattle you can trace where they went.”
p The ACCC is reviewing membership of its Agriculture Consultative Committee for 2018 and 2019.
Expressions of interest for appointment close tomorrow, Friday.