Voluntary Standards for Olive Oil Industry
Mr COULTON (Parkes—The Nationals Chief Whip) (21:11): I too rise to speak on the motion introduced by the member for Kingston. I commend her on her valiant effort in failing health as she battled through her speech, perhaps in need of a little olive oil herself. While I completely agree with the sentiment of the motion and the comments the member made, I think we need to go further with this. We need some regulation with some real bite because, while it is nice to have aspirational motions, we have a role to put in place legislation that will benefit not only the industry but also consumers.
This issue is basically divided into two halves: one as it affects the olive oil producers and the other as it affects the consumers. The olive oil industry is quite large in my electorate of Parkes, where, I believe, in all the river valleys across this third of New South Wales there are olive groves. It is an emerging industry that over the last 25 or 30 years has gone from a standing start to being quite significant. There has been a lot of concern about this issue. During Senate estimates my colleagues Senators Williams and Boswell tried to drill down into information from Food Standards Australia New Zealand and the ACCC to find out what control and regulation government has over the industry. We have been pursuing this on behalf of the industry for some time.
Olive oil is blended, mixed and refined. It is labelled in many different ways, but only extra virgin olive oil has not been physically or chemically changed. Countries like Germany, Italy, Canada and South Africa are all looking into this issue, but in theory olive oil products are being marketed as comparable to high-quality extra virgin olive oil. The voluntary standards are based on industry best practice.
As I said, there are famers in my electorate who have put a lot of finance and effort into developing this industry. I was speaking to some of the farmers in the Gwydir Valley last week. They have considerable holdings of land under olives. We have an industry in my electorate that goes from farmers with thousand-acre groves down to smaller producers that might have five or 10 acres. At the moment, they are really struggling with the prices they are receiving.
Over the last couple of decades we have seen more than $1 billion invested in Australia in groves and milling plants. Australians consume some 45 million litres of olive oil a year, and this is increasing. I understand that Australia is the second highest per capita consumer of olive oil and olive oil products after countries around the Mediterranean. And it should be recognised that the best olive oil products are based on high-quality produce. Unfortunately, cheap, inferior imports have undermined the price of high-quality olive oil. Farm-gate prices have been slashed by 50 per cent over the last four years despite substantial growth in the industry over the last 10 years. Australian growers have captured about 30 per cent of the market with a high-quality product competing unfairly in the same space with inferior, imported olive oils.
There has been no compulsion for olive oil to be identified appropriately. Olive oil is often labelled 'light', 'extra light' and 'pure' in an attempt to market an inferior product as comparable with extra virgin olive oil. What is necessary are certain guidelines that are easy to follow and easily identified by the public and the consumers. If these guidelines were regulated then it would be possible for inferior products to be pursued by the ACCC for misrepresentation. We do not need to have protection. I am not talking about trade barriers here. I am just talking about setting up regulations so that the Australian industry can compete on a level playing field with the competitors from overseas. This would also show inferior imports for exactly what they are.
There are also health benefits to the Australian public having these standards in a more definite way. As it is now, consumers may purchase oils that might be refined and then labelled 'light', which can be mistaken as low fat. Clear labelling would enable consumers to understand exactly what they were buying. I also believe it is very difficult because, if a product has a percentage of extra virgin olive oil added back into it, it is marketed as extra virgin. In fact, extra virgin olive oil is olive juice. It is just squeezed juice from the olive with no other refining taking place, but all sorts of blending goes on with a small percentage of extra virgin added to a refined product and then labelled as something else. A study in 2008 showed that 84 per cent of imported extra virgin olive oil was not actually extra virgin. Eighteen per cent of all olive oil imported was shown to actually be lamp oil, and this is not considered fit for human consumption.
The industry has been working steadily to create voluntary standards, which is good. However, while ever these standards are voluntary, we will still have inferior products and incorrect labelling without any consideration for the ramifications of misleading consumers. One of the things I would like to see is defined labels that are enforceable so that, if something is misrepresented under that particular label and brand, it can be pursued by the ACCC for misrepresenting a product. Unfortunately, a lot of consumers are not educated or aware of the complexity of the blends that they might be seeing in the supermarket. I believe that now is the time and place to have a clear labelling regime that identifies what product is what so that, if people choose to pay less for an inferior product, they know that they are buying something that is of lesser nutritional value, is a blend or is a poorer-quality substitute for a higher-quality product. At the moment, it is very difficult for consumers to make that decision. Regulations are necessary to ensure an appropriate standard of olive oil labelling. This will benefit consumers, who will be able to purchase a high-quality product, and producers, who will be assisted because inferior imported products will not be in direct comparison with higher-quality Australian oil.
While this motion certainly is correct in its sentiment—I agree with it completely—I think the time has passed for feel-good motions in this place. The time has come that we stick up for the olive oil producers and this parliament looks after the interests of consumers and puts in some regulations that are enforceable and that will see a clear definition of product so that the industry and consumers can get onto an equitable playing field. (Time expired)