UPDATED 3.45pm: PEAK horticulture group Ausveg and Independent Senator for SA Nick Xenophon are calling on the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to investigate a move by Woolworths to charge growers a levy to fund its campaign involving celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.
Ausveg says Woolworths is demanding individual growers around Australia fund the campaign through a new 40 cents per crate charge on top of the 2.5 to 5 per cent fee growers are already required to pay Woolworths to market and promote their produce.
At a joint press conference in Melbourne today with Senator Xenophon, Ausveg acting chief executive William Churchill said growers were being given no undertaking from Woolworths on what return they would see from the additional funds they are being asked to provide to fund the promotion.
However, Woolworths later released a statement explaining the contribution was "entirely voluntary".
"It’s disappointing that Senator Xenophon and Ausveg didn’t contact us," the statement read.
"We could have explained that the contribution was entirely voluntary, how around half our suppliers chose to work with us on the campaign which benefits the whole fruit and vegetable industry and how participating growers are paying less than 2 per cent of the cost of a case of produce."
The statement also said Woolworths was keen to "get kids excited" about eating more fresh fruit and vegetables with the Jamie Oliver campaign.
Mr Churchill maintained Ausveg was "outraged at the way that the company is behaving”.
He said growers were concerned if they didn’t comply with the 40c levy to fund the campaign, their business with Woolworths would be blacklisted and they would receive fewer orders for produce, or be struck out altogether.
“It’s astounding for a company that posted a $1.32 billion net profit in February and employs 190,000 staff to be going back to already squeezed farmers and asking them to cough up more money to pay for promotions,” Mr Churchill said.
“Australia’s farmers cannot afford to fund Woolworths’ marketing campaigns and expectations that growers should contribute more are totally unreasonable. The ACCC must immediately investigate."
Senator Xenophon reinforced Mr Churchill’s comments, saying while Jamie Oliver had been a great ambassador for good food, he was being used to impose a bad deal on growers.
“This just strengthens the case for my Bill that gives courts the power to break up a company that abuses market power,” Senator Xenophon said.
“Margins are already razor thin for many of Australia’s growers and this will make life even more marginal for a lot of them.
“Jamie Oliver needs to know that, by Woolworths lining his pockets, a lot of Aussie farmers are going to be out of pocket.
“This is a bizarre version of Oliver Twist. In Woolworth’s ‘Oliver’s twist’ it’s the corporate giant demanding ‘please sir, more’ from struggling farmers.
“I’ll be writing to Jamie Oliver, inviting him to meet with individual farmers and industry groups who are already doing it tough.”