OPINION: CHEF Jamie Oliver is used to a hot kitchen but his deal with Woolworths has exposed him to a very different form of heat.
October last year, Woolworths announced a “partnership” with the celebrity chef. Ostensibly, this is about “inspiring a healthier Australia”.
Mr Oliver promised in a YouTube video he would be “working across the whole of the business, at front and back end.” In another video he said: “Part of what I’m doing with Woolies is looking at standards, and ethics, of where our sort of food comes from.”
The problem is that he is not. Instead, Mr Oliver has come under fire over the funding of the advertising surrounding his relationship with Woolworths.
“Part of what I’m doing with Woolies is looking at standards, and ethics ...”
Woolworths are demanding that growers pay the costs of their advertising campaign, asking for a levy of 40 cents for every crate of fruit and vegetables sold. That doesn’t sound much, until you think that farmers’ profits average only $1 per crate for a whole season’s work.
Considered this way, it stinks more than a truckload of rotten spuds.
Of course Woolworths say that the levy is voluntary but Woolworths tightly control their supply chain and growers know that if they don’t pay Woolworths may very well not buy the crop they have in the ground.
Both Woolworths and Mr Oliver’s people have so far refused to disclose the amount he is being paid for this advertising extravaganza. But it's a lot, an awful lot.
All of this begs the question as to whether there is any substance at all to what Mr Oliver claims to be doing. Other than giving away a few recipes, it would appear not.
Let’s look at his claims about standards and ethics.
There is an internationally accepted framework for analysing a company’s social footprint. It is called the Global Reporting Initiative. It sets out objective measures of a company’s sustainability.
One of these measures is the amount of product packaging a company uses. If Mr Oliver really was looking at the standards and ethics of the food supplied, he’d know that Woolworths meat, for example, is highly packaged, using polystyrene. Not only is polystyrene environmentally disastrous, there are serious questions about its health risks.
Another key measure is the degree to which the company has been engaged in anti-competitive practices. The Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC) confirmed this week that Woolworths are the subject of a long-running investigation into the way they treat suppliers.
If the ACCC’s recently commenced action against Coles is any guide, this will include demanding payments from suppliers when there is no legitimate basis for seeking those payments. And that brings us back to Mr Oliver and the levy on our Aussie farmers.
When pressed by the vegetable growers’ peak industry body, Ausveg, over the demands they surrender 40 per cent of their profits to Mr Oliver and Woolworths, he at first dithered. Then, on Friday, a letter was issued by his representatives to say “Jamie is essentially an ‘employee” of Woolworths and as such he has no sway regarding the commercial direction... the Woolworths business takes.”
That’s not what he boasted in his video.
Moreover, in this case he is not a spectator but effectively a beneficiary of these demands on our farmers. If he doesn’t approve of Woolworths’ ethics, he can withdraw from the campaign, and refund his endorsement fee. I suspect he won’t.
In the last 12 months, the average vegetable grower has gone from making a small profit to making a loss. In the same 12 months, Mr Oliver’s wealth rose by an estimated £90 million. Now we know how.
Bill O'Chee is a consultant and former Nationals senator.