Celebrity chef and food producer is the latest industry insider to accuse the major supermarkets of failing to support Australian food growers and manufacturers.
“So many Australians seek the cheapest alternative in food, and perhaps this is exacerbated by the big two [Coles and Woolworths], our duopoly, that pits one against the other in price wars, that see the farmer suffer. We have to do something about that,” she told the International Year of Co-operatives conference in Port Macquarie last week.
Beer’s pate, quince paste and ice creams sell through major supermarkets and independent retailers at a higher price than other comparable item, due to their high quality standard and use of Australian ingredients.
She said that while most Australians say they support Australian made and owned products, their purchasing behaviour proves otherwise.
''It's interesting Australians say they will support Australian-made and Australian-grown, but will we?”
“We support what's marketed most, and we so often support what's cheapest, especially with food.''
Beer was awarded an Order of Australia this year, after finding recognition for her cookbooks and television series focussed on cooking.
Beer has echoed the statements of Independent Queensland MP Bob Katter, who earlier this year told Parliament that the major supermarkets are killing our farmers.
''If we don't support our farmers, we will not continue to enjoy the freshness and the diversity of the produce we have now,'' she said.
''I have to say flavour, seasonality, ripeness, can not travel a long way.
Beer is in a good position to comment on the realities of farming, since she owns a farm in South Australia’s Barossa Valley with vineyards, olive groves, quince orchards and a soft fruit orchard.
“I know we live in a global market, but our local farmers can not compete against the imports of a global market when it comes to the cost of our labour.
''It's important that we pay a proper wage to a farm worker that not only sustains a family but sustains farming communities – whole communities.''
Terry Toohey Australian Dairy Farmers Director, told the Food Magazine Industry Leaders Summit earlier this year that the impact of Coles and Woolworths’ price wars will continue to drive farmers away.
"The retail actions are certainly impacting the dairy farmers in a negative way, this combined with the uncertainties and other factors [impacting] dairy or other farming, it's making it unattractive for the next generation, because it's not profitable for my children,” he said.
"If I was old and had children ready to take over the farm, I will tell them blue in the face not to come into agriculture.
“And that's pretty sad after 107 years on the one farm."
“It’s an unfortunate reality that milk price is a dollar.
“[It’s] simply unsustainable for all involved in the fresh food market.
“You can see the dairy farmers’ dairy families already suffering for Coles’ tactics.
“Given the sheer size of the supermarket duopoly, over 75 per cent of the market is between the two powers, and they are wielding that Australian marketplace and the majority of Australian suppliers, particularly to the fresh food industry,” he said.
“In NSW, my state, I see farmers being asked to sign contracts for 3 cents a litre than their previous contracts," he said.
“This will have astronomical effects on fund and profit margins.”
“In my case I’ll have 40 per cent of my tier 2 of milk [purchased] at 18 cents [per litre].
“The cost of products is 40 cents [per litre].
“So, you start to look and say, I’m only one person, there are 800 dairy farmers in NSW alone.”
Beer also joined the myriad of critics of Australia’s current labelling laws, saying they make it very difficult for consumers to understand which products are locally-grown.
''We were bottling some of our olives,” she explained.
“The salt came from South Australia and we had some of our own red wine vinegar in the jar and we were labelling it and then we found out we could not say 'Produce of Australia' because the jar came from overseas.''
Australian entrepreneur Dick Smith, who launched his own food company over a decade ago, has also voiced his concerns about the ability for local companies to compete against cheap imports.
“The freedom we’ve usually had in Australia is that you could go to a supermarket and decide if you wanted to buy Australian, imported, high-quality, low-quality, it was up to you," he said earlier this year.
“ALDI has taken that decision away.
“The problem is that because so many of us go to ALDI because the prices are cheaper, Coles and Woolworths will copy.
“The reason ALDI’s so successful is you can’t compare a price.
“What Coles and Woolworths will do to compete with that, which they must do because they have Aussie mums and dads as shareholders and the board will get the sack if they don’t keep making profits each year, so they will go to more and more products where you can’t compare a price.
"I call that ‘extreme capitalism,’ and it’s a disadvantage to consumers."
Do you agree with Maggie Beer's comments? How can we fix this problem?
Image: Australian Traveller