How To Shop Ethically and Reduce Poor Food Conditions
How often do you stop to consider where your food comes from? While there is definitely a movement towards more mindful grocery shopping, it can be hard to know exactly what goes into getting food into stores – even when it comes from Australian farms.
There are all kinds of farming conditions that are considered unethical and the impact is far-reaching, from workers on the farm to supermarket prices and what we eat at home.
A recent report on ABC’s Four Corners has highlighted the shocking conditions some workers have faced at prominent farms around the country, leading to calls for more transparency and support for people that follow the rules.
“Almost every fresh product that you pick up… will have passed through the hands of workers who have been fundamentally exploited,” one union official says in the program.
The program specifically focused on international workers fulfilling visa requirements to work and travel through Australia, naming some of the largest farming companies in the country in the process. It also looked at how the unfair conditions and pay led to lower overheads for the farms, which in turn meant they could sell produce to supermarkets at a cheaper rate – often at the expense of more ethical farms.
While the report sent shockwaves through the country at the time it aired, there has not been much follow up for consumers since. With that in mind, we thought it was important to look at the farms in question and what brands they are connected to, highlighting the broad reach these businesses have.
We’ve also outlined some of the ethical businesses out there, highlighting what they are doing right and where they are supplied, so that we can all make more informed decisions about where our groceries come from and what they support.
Farms and businesses linked to unethical practises
The Four Corners report, which aired on Monday 4th May 2015, found that there is “conclusive evidence of extreme labour exploitation, slave-like conditions and black market labour gangs” on farms and in factories supplying Australia’s biggest supermarkets and fast food chains.
Some workers say they worked for less than $5 an hour, while others talk of harassment and other horrific conditions on site. Worse still, with so many from overseas, the show says it is hard to know how many more people have been affected by these dodgy practises.
The impact of the report has been widespread, with national media, politicians, unions and even major supermarkets and fast food companies weighing in on the evidence provided in the show. Some of the key businesses named – and their industry reach – are outlined below to give you an idea of just what food could be affected.
The biggest sweet potato supplier in Queensland was accused by Four Corners of verbal assault. But Akers Farm representatives have objected to the claims made and say the family-owned business has a good reputation in the industry.
Akers Farms may have contracts with Coles and Woolworths, but as a smaller business it is difficult to tell exactly what is fact and fiction either way. A lawyer for company founder Dean Akers has said that the allegations have been taken “quite seriously and relevant processes are in place.”
Baiada Poultry is one of the largest poultry farming businesses in Australia, with farming and operation sites across Queensland, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. Its major retail brands are Lilydale Chickens and Steggles and it supplies chicken to fast food chains Red Rooster and KFC.
We’ve launched a review into the issues raised on last nights Four Corners program. Please visit http://t.co/Yre8ApQVj5
— Lilydale (@Lilydalechicken) May 5, 2015
Baiada has previously been linked to underpaying workers when using hire firms, including a case in 2013 when workers at its Newcastle factory said they were paid half the legal minimum wage with no payslips or superannuation.
The company has denied the allegations made by the ABC, but has also announced further investigations of worker conditions.
Covino is one of Australia’s largest producers of carrots, broccoli and salads in Australia. The family-founded Gippsland company supplies it’s ingredients to Aldi, Red Rooster, KFC and Woolworths in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia.
Following the airing of the Four Corners program, Covino has released a statement saying it terminated contracts with labour hire businesses “that utilise migrant workers” in April 2015. But it denied allegations of sexual abuse and overtime work outlined in the report, saying an investigation and proven inconclusive.
“Covino has implemented a new model where it now takes full responsibility for payment of workers directly, rather than through a labour hire provider,” it says.
“This provides absolute certainty that workers are paid in accordance with the National Employment Standards.”
The company also says it “welcomes” inquiries into labour hire business practises in Victoria and looks forward to “working closely with Government and industry to develop appropriate solutions to stamp out exploitation and abuse of labour from our industry forever”.
Specialising in truss tomatoes, D’VineRipe operates a 27-hectare glasshouse at Two Wells in South Australia. The company supplies supermarkets around the country including Coles, Woolworths, Aldi, IGA and Costco. It’s one of the largest tomato growing companies in the Southern Hemisphere.
The company’s practises were called into question by Four Corners when workers reported being underpaid and also experienced unwanted advanced from a senior D’VineRipe staff member. D’VineRipe has since terminated its contract with the labour hire company linked to underpaying staff, and stood down the supervisor involved in the sexual harassment claims.
While all of these businesses were linked to the horrible conditions detailed on Four Corners – as well as in other investigations in some cases – it is important to acknowledge that all of them have said they are taking action against poor work conditions in the aftermath of this report.
It’s also worth noting that a lot of the allegations actually led back to labour hire companies, rather than the farms themselves, so it could be a case of changing the hiring process to ensure fairer conditions (which appears to be what Covino, D’VineRipe and others are working towards).
Another thing to consider is that it may just be a small segment of the industry that is involved in unethical practises. In an interview with News.com.au, executive officer of the Bundaberg Fruit and Vegetable Growers Peter Hockings says the complexity of the situation made it hard to weed out the unethical businesses and hard to point out the ethical ones.
“The majority of growers are doing the right thing and a minority are rorting the system,” he says.
“Ultimately it is the government department’s responsibility to enforce the regulations.”
Ethical farms and businesses
While it’s important to be aware of unethical practises, it’s also important to know about and support businesses that are known to do the right thing.As Hockings has explained, it’s sometimes hard to point out everyone that is playing by the rules, but here are a few that have a reputation for ethical approaches.
Bd Farm Paris Creek
This dairy company has free range, grass fed cows and biodynamic management. It’s available in selected Coles, Woolworths, IGA and Foodland stores in SA, WA, NSW, VIC and QLD and has a stockist search option online.
“On our biodynamic organic farm there are no fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and GMO’s used and no antibiotics or hormones are administered to our herds,” the company’s website says.
“Owning a totally biodynamic farm has been a life-time dream of [founders] Ulli and Helmut Spranz, and they were both well qualified to follow that dream.”
Cleaver’s Organic Meats
Cleaver’s is Australia’s biggest wholesaler of organic meat and supplies a number of Coles stores around the country – particularly around Sydney and Melbourne – with a full range of stockists available on its website.
The Cleaver’s range of pasture fed organic beef and lamb products are sourced from a network of ecologically sustainable Australian farms “that allow their animals to graze freely on pastures and live as nature intended, fed on grass without grain.” Cleaver’s Organic Meats also says it works with farmers to ensure “our workers receive fair working conditions”.
Founded by ethics expert Simon Illingworth, Garlic World is a business that sells garlic, onion and shallot varieties both for eating and growing. The website encourages people to grow their own, and even includes a professional growing guide with all orders over $50.
In regards to ethical farms, Illingworth says they should “weigh up the pros and cons of new technology and seek to constantly improve farming practices.”
“We strive to achieve the greatest yield (crop size) that is sustainable for our lands long term prospects. We value transparency – so we welcome questions about how we operate.”
The only other business to get an A-grade on the Ethical Shopping website, Inglewood Farms is actually Australia’s largest organic poultry business. It has 6000 acres of certified organic land and is stocked by supermarkets including Coles, Woolworths, IGA, Foodworks. It also supplies certified organic, free range poultry for other brands including Macro and Harris Farm Markets.
SA Potato Company was also interviewed for Four Corners, with CEO Steve Marafiote saying the company had recently lost supply contracts to supermarkets that went for cheaper options linked to worker exploitation.
The company says it’s committed to “providing quality fresh produce, consistency of supply, delivering high levels of customer service and embracing forward-thinking innovation”.
Tassal is one of Australia’s main producers of Tasmanian salmon products and is stocked by almost all major supermarkets around the country.
The Tassal website outlines a wide range of sustainability commitments for its salmon farm and is fairly open about the various practises and considerations when it comes to health and wellbeing.
It has a sustainable aquaculture partnership with WWF, Aquaculture Stewardship Council certification and is also Best Aquacultures Practise certified (among other things).
— ASC (@ASC_aqua) February 9, 2015
These are just a few of the food companies that are known for ethical practises that relate to the produce, farming methods or both, but it does give you some idea of the range of businesses that are committed to doing the right thing.
How to support ethical farm practises
The biggest challenge in supporting ethical farming is that it is hard to know which businesses are doing the right thing in some ways, which are doing the right thing in all ways and which are not paying much heed to certifications and regulations at all. But there are resources available to help you make smarter decisions about your groceries.
When it comes to supermarket produce, online guides such as those available on the Shop Ethical website can help you figure out what businesses uphold standards and even specify what standards each company focuses on.
Another way to support ethical farming is to support local farmers by shopping at independent fruit and vegetable stores, butchers, fishmongers and so forth. There’s also a growing number of growers and farmers markets around Australia, and you can search for local options via the Australian Farmers Markets Association website, or in your local paper.
Shopping locally means you are supporting smaller farms that are a vital part of your community. In turn, that means they can make sure they pay their workers fairly and uphold ethical farming practises, so it benefits everyone.
While exposing unethical practises is important, there’s very little consumers can do about it in the short term. But staying informed about different companies, understanding the processes involved and supporting those that strive to do the right thing (in every way) means that we can actively encourage supermarkets and suppliers to uphold ethical practises every step of the way.