Monday, 18 June 2012
Private Members' Business
That this House:
(1) welcomes the introduction of the Australian Standard for Olive and Olive Pomace Oils in 2011 which clearly defines the grade, content and quality of olive oil products and establishes labelling and packaging requirements;
(2) notes the findings of an analysis conducted recently by the Australian Olive Association which revealed that a significant number of imported olive oils in particular, still fail to comply with this national standard;
(3) recognises that misleading labelling practices present considerable challenges for the commercial viability of our domestic olive oil industry, lead to low levels of consumer confidence in olive oil products and prevent consumers from making informed choices about the products they consume, and which may have adverse consequences, including on their health;
(4) welcomes the news that some retailers intend to phase in the voluntary national standard in light of the recent findings, and calls on these retailers to do so in a timely and rigorous manner; and
(5) urges all retailers in Australia to adopt and enforce the Australian Standard for Olive and Olive Pomace Oils so that consumers can make informed purchasing choices, and so that producers of accurately labelled olive oils benefit from a level playing field.
I am very pleased to move this motion to highlight some of the ongoing challenges faced by our domestic olive oil industry and some challenges faced by the Australian consumers of olive oil products.
I have previously spoken in the House about some of these challenges facing our olive oil industry and, in particular, facing the olive growers and olive oil producers that make a wonderful product on the Fleurieu Peninsula, which includes a portion of my own electorate. In 2009 I raised the concerning lack of transparency in the labelling of olive oil products and the consequences for industry competition and consumer protection. I have advocated for the development of clear guidelines to differentiate between various qualities of olive oil and to ensure accuracy and clarity in the labelling of olive oil products.
Since that time, I am very pleased that Standards Australia has introduced an Australian standard for olive and olive-pomace oils which clearly defines the grade, content and quality of olive oil products and establishes labelling and packaging requirements. I understand that Standards Australia received almost 800 submissions throughout the drafting of the standard and that there was strong support from both consumers and stakeholders such as olive oil producers to introduce a standard to effectively address the issues facing the industry.
I welcome the standard, which was introduced in 2011 and defines a number of important areas: (1) clearly outlining different grades of olive oil, whether fresh or refined; (2) unambiguously defining what constitutes extra virgin olive oil, including the most current and effective testing methods for quality and authenticity; (3) providing a technical basis for the 'best before' claims; (4) providing labelling requirements to minimise consumer confusion; (5) cracking down on the misuse of words such as premium, super, pure, light/lite; (6) requiring substantiation of words describing country/region of origin; (7) requiring substantiation of processing methods such as cold pressed and first extraction; and (8) accommodating the natural variations that occur in different countries, olive varieties and regions, without compromising the ability to test and verify quality.
This motion notes the findings of an analysis conducted recently by the Australian Olive Association which revealed that a significant number of imported olive oils in particular still fail to comply with this national standard. Unfortunately, a number of studies have shown that olive oil products on the shelves of our supermarkets have been, and continue to be, deceiving consumers. A recently completed survey of Australian supermarket oils from 2008 to 2011, conducted by the Australian Olive Association as part of a research project funded by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, revealed that over 52 per cent of oil labelled as extra virgin was found to be of a lower grade than extra virgin, as a consequence of either adulteration with refined oils, poor quality of the initial product and/or being too old or poorly stored. As a part of the survey, the Australian Olive Association analysed 30 olive oils against the new standard and revealed that, of the 22 purportedly 'extra virgin' olive oils, seven out of seven imported varieties failed to comply with the standard due to factors such as rancidity, mildew and incorrect labelling. These findings are particularly concerning.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, as well as the consumer group CHOICE, having also investigated different brands of olive oils, have found that many do not live up to what they purport to be. This motion recognises that misleading labelling practices present considerable challenges for the commercial viability of our domestic olive oil industry, given that those Australian growers and producers who are doing the right thing, who are meeting the standard and who are labelling correctly have to unfairly compete with those olive oils that are not complying with the standard.
The motion before us also recognises that misleading practices lead to a lower level of consumer confidence in olive oil products and prevent consumers from making informed choices about the products they consume, which can have adverse consequences for consumers, including for their health. The Australian Olive Association has noted that practices such as cutting higher quality oils such as extra virgin olive oil with lower quality and less expensive oils such as sunflower and canola oil are rife, particularly in imported products, and that this puts significant pressure on those Australian growers and producers who are doing the right thing but are having to compete on the supermarket shelves against imported products which are not complying.
Indeed, domestic olive growers and olive oil producers are forced to struggle in an environment where the retail price of olive oils has been slashed which is, in part, attributable to the importation of some products which are significantly cheaper because they do not contain the right standard of oil, but rather contain other oils such as cooking oils. Indeed, in one instance—and I think this is very concerning—it was exposed that one of these products contained refined lamp oil. For consumers it is particularly concerning that, when they are buying a product that seems cheap and is labelled extra virgin olive oil or a specific olive oil, it is shown to have been mixed with lamp oil.
In addition, the Australian Olive Association has raised concerns about the continuing use of deceptive terms, such as 'light', which have connotations of being healthier when in reality they are actually only light on beneficial things like antioxidants and can contain trans fatty acids that are not present in natural extra virgin olive oils. There has been significant evidence to attest to the fact that natural extra virgin olive oils do have health benefits, such as in relation to heart health, that are not present in refined olive oils. Indeed, the Australian Olive Association has said that almost all natural antioxidants and vitamins are lost during the refining process to create lower grade olive oils commonly labelled as 'light' or 'pure'. I would say that this is something the average consumer is not aware of. Most of us see terms like 'light' on an olive oil product in the supermarket and think we are making a positive choice for our health, but we have now heard this is not necessarily the case. I have spoken in this chamber many, many times about the importance of correct and accurate labelling so that consumers can make the choice. It would seem from the findings of surveys such as the one recently conducted by the Australian Olive Association that it continues to be extremely difficult for many Australian consumers to make informed choices about the products they purchase.
This motion welcomes the news that some retailers intend to phase in the voluntary national standard in light of the recent findings and calls on these retailers to do so in a timely and rigorous manner. I must commend these retailers. It is really important that retailers have this standard for olive oil, but only some retailers are doing so. I take this opportunity to urge all retailers in Australia to adopt and enforce the Australian Standard for Olive and Olive-Pomace Oils so that consumers, no matter which retailer they walk into, know there is an olive oil standard and can make informed purchasing choices in the knowledge that what they pick up meets that standard.
We should note that olive oil is becoming increasingly popular. Australian consumption of olive oil has risen from about 30,000 tonnes to more than 40,000 tonnes in the past decade, and Australian growers supply about a quarter of that. Olive oil is a commonly used product by Australian consumers and it also constitutes an important part of primary production in our country. It is not good enough that we continue to have a situation whereby dishonest or improper labelling of olive oil products is occurring on our supermarket shelves. As I said, I encourage all retailers to adopt this standard. It is important that this standard be enforced, and that is where we must turn our attention. Once retailers have seen the importance of adopting this—and I am sure they will, as a number have already done so—we must enforce this standard effectively so that olive oil producers can have a level playing field for selling their products and Australian consumers are protected from confusing labelling practices and from misleading information, and honest growers and producers are not disadvantaged. I commend this motion to the House.
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)
As someone who loves to cook and who was brought up by a mother who constantly told us that olive oil and garlic were the keys to good health, good skin, sparkly eyes and shiny hair, it gives me great pleasure to speak on this motion tonight. I have even missed out finding out who the finalist on The Voice is to speak on this motion tonight, so that shows my commitment to standards of olive oil!
This motion raises the importance of supporting our Australian industries, because when it comes to olive oil, there have been some disturbing reports that suggest that 'oils ain't oils' and that some imported olive oils that are marketed as 'light' or 'extra virgin' are not those at all. In the case of olive oil, some of the cheap foreign imports that you will find on your supermarket shelves not only are of inferior quality but have been found to be wrongly labelled. Many foreign olive oils marketed as Spanish or Italian are actually from places such as Morocco, so that is why I commend the member for Kingston for raising this important motion tonight.
It is an issue that was raised by my sister late last year. She is a master of wine and a winemaker, and she is very good friends with Stefano de Pieri, who owns that fabulous restaurant in Mildura. I know that it has been an issue of concern for him for many years and it has been an issue of concern for my sister in recent years, so it is a real pleasure to be able to speak on it tonight, and I again commend the member for Kingston for raising it.
Australians are big consumers of olive oil, but too often what we think we are buying is not what we are actually getting. According to the CEO of Standards Australia, consumers are often misled into believing they are buying healthy products such as extra virgin olive oil, which is natural, fresh and unrefined, when they are not. In fact, a recent Australian Olive Association analysis found seven out of seven imported varieties failed to comply with extra virgin olive oil standards due to rancidity, mildew or incorrect labelling. By comparison, 75 per cent of Australian-made oils complied with the standard.
It is unfortunate that Australia's quality olive oil products have had to compete with inferior overseas imports that simply are not labelled properly or are made up of other oils entirely, such as canola oil. We must do all we can to assist the commercial viability of our domestic olive oil industry, as this motion suggests. Misleading labelling poses significant challenges for our domestic producers as well as consumers. It prevents us from making informed choices about the products we consume. For something many of us use so frequently, that we trust as a healthy product, this is simply not good enough.
That is why, like the member for Kingston, I welcome the introduction of the Australian Standard for Olive Oils and Olive-Pomace Oils in 2011, which clearly defines the grade, content and quality of olive oil products and establishes labelling and packaging requirements. This new standard is helping to ensure customers can be confident that when they buy top-quality olive oil, that is what they will get. It will allow consumers to shop with confidence and know that, when they buy olive oil according to Australian standards, they are getting a top-quality product.
The standard, introduced last year, applies to all olive and olive-pomace oils that are traded in Australia. It defines grades of olive oils, specifies chemical composition and quality parameters for these grades, establishes requirements for labelling and packing and lists acceptable methods of analysis. The purpose of the standard is to provide all those involved in the olive oil and olive-pomace oil trade, from producers to consumers, with a modern reference document that establishes an objective basis for the trade of these products. But the standard cannot work properly unless retailers get on board too. That is why it is welcome news that some retailers intend to phase in the voluntary national standard for olive oil.
I call on those retailers to do so in a timely and rigorous manner. I also urge all retailers to adopt and enforce the standard so that consumers can make informed purchasing choices. This will also ensure our producers of accurately-labelled olive oils, who are doing the right thing, benefit from a level playing field. Buying Australian-produced olive oil is not only delicious, but it is good news for our local producers, it uses less packaging and it helps to reduce our carbon footprint as well. Buying local is much better for our environment and ensures you will get a product that is fresh, Australian made and of proven high quality—and you cannot argue with that.
I rise this evening to support the motion on the Australian Standard for Olive and Olive-Pomace Oils in 2011. Extra virgin olive oil is the only mainstream edible oil which has not been chemically or physically refined and changed; it is just the natural juice of the olive. Due to the natural process and great taste and health benefits it offers, extra virgin olive oil is highly sought by consumers. The Australian olive oil industry has grown substantially over the past decade, with more than $1 billion invested in regional Australia in groves and milling plants which have created thousands of jobs. Certainly olive groves and their produce are generating income for the Riverina.
Australians consume 45 million litres of olive oil a year, with consumption rising rapidly over the past 20 years to make Australia the highest consumers per capita outside the Mediterranean area. Australian growers have captured about 30 per cent of this market due to the outstanding quality of their extra virgin olive oil. However, most Australian olive growers are struggling to survive, despite producing world-class extra virgin olive oil, because they have watched the farm gate price more than halve over the past four years.
The Australian Olive Association's Paul Miller says producers cannot compete with cheap imports and are being forced to sell below the cost of production. Furthermore, these cheap imports are masquerading as the real thing and consumers are none the wiser. This is because imported oils have misleading labels which read 'pure', 'light' or 'extra light', although these names are illegal in most producing countries, including those in Europe. These deceptively-labelled products make up 45 per cent of the Australian retail market and sell for a similar price to extra virgin, in turn fooling Australian consumers, who believe they are purchasing extra virgin olive oil when the reality is that they are purchasing second-rate refined oil.
The reasons behind the widespread practice of misleading labelling of olive oils is twofold. Firstly, it is for financial gain. It can be very profitable to purchase only lower grade cheaper products, such as refined olive oil, and sell them as something else, in this case extra virgin olive oil. Secondly, there is an abundance of low-grade refined olive oil and a shortage of extra virgin. Europe produces 80 per cent of the world's olive oil but half of that production is not for human consumption and must be refined. It is then transported to countries such as Australia and labelled as 'extra light' or 'pure', or is even in some cases called 'extra virgin'.
In 2005 the Australian Olive Association published its own code of practice, which aims to guarantee the authenticity and quality of certified products and distinguish them from imported products. To be certified by the Australian Olive Association, products must be Australian and have undergone organoleptic testing for taste and for chemicals. Only after passing these tests can an Australian extra virgin olive oil become certified by the Australian Olive Association. Brands that are certified all carry a sticker, which helps make it easier for consumers to know they are purchasing authentic Australian extra virgin olive oil. In addition to ensuring the quality and authenticity of Australian extra virgin olive the code of practice—