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Food fraudsters stealing reputations, writes Jan Davis

Jan Davis, CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Australia, originally posted this article on LinkedIn Pulse.

Most of us have at some stage come across cheap knock-off copies of expensive brands – Louis Vuitton handbags, Ralph Polo shirts, Rolex watches, Nikes – whatever. Maybe you even succumbed to temptation.

Chinese counterfeiting has been a challenge to many major corporations and fashion houses for decades. However, the copyists have moved on and the latest trend is in faking foods and consumables.

This is proving a nightmare for Australian farmers, agribusinesses and consumers.

Australia enjoys positive perceptions in rapidly growing Asian markets as a clean and green producer of wholesome, natural and trustworthy food products.

Interestingly, whereas knock-off fashion items can be bought from markets at a fraction of the price of the genuine product, counterfeit food products are being sold for the same price as the authentic products.

The upside of this means there are opportunities for Australian farmers and agribusinesses to take advantage of strong demand for our products and, in many cases, to achieve a significant price premium.

The current stampede for Australian powdered milk baby formulas is just one example of how this can work.

The downside is that unscrupulous traders will want to cash in on these opportunities by muscling in with copies of many of our well-known brands.

A recent example was a wine labelled “Benfold” in the familiar style of the well-known Penfold’s brand. At a quick glance, it was easy to miss the difference.

Tasmanian cherry grower Reid Fruits produces cherries that are in demand the world over. In fact, demand is so great that they are sometimes seen as the “Louis Vuitton” of cherries, because it is a favourite of counterfeiters.

A Chinese online retailer even set up a website from Sydney, passing off Chilean cherries in fake-printed Chinese boxes to Shanghai customers as Tasmanian-grown Reid Fruits cherries.

Reid’s is looking at introducing different technology on its packaging and stricter verification methods. However, if that still doesn’t protect their brand, the company has said it would consider withdrawing from the Asian market.

Victorian farmer, David Blackmore, produces Wagyu beef that takes pride of place on the menu of high-end eateries across the globe. He recently found out a Chinese company had been offered daily deliveries of more product than his farm produced in a month.

In another incident, a chef from an upmarket Shanghai restaurant contacted Mr Blackmore’s company. The chef had used Blackmore’s Wagyu in a previous role and found that the product he was being supplied with now was ‘different’. Investigations soon showed that the Shanghai restaurant was buying fake meat.

Mr Blackmore has cut shipments to Asia as a result. He now deals with only one family-owned company in China, which distributes his beef to five-star restaurants in Shanghai.

Tightening the supply chain is not just about protecting profits, though. It is as importantly about maintaining brand integrity, and food health and safety.

The ramifications if someone got sick or died from a counterfeit product would be huge. No doubt those affected would sue; and regulators would come down on the legitimate company like a ton of bricks. Even if they could prove the offending products were fakes, this could destroy them.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has no power to stop overseas counterfeiting. But it’s doing its best to stop fake products hitting Australian supermarket shelves.

Recent cases have included a Victorian butcher being fined $50,000 for falsely claiming that product came from King Island; and several food companies claiming to sell honey, when their products were mostly made from plant sugars in Turkey.

Carlton & United Breweries was also fined for misrepresenting its Byron Bay Pale Ale as being made by a small brewer in the seaside town, when it was brewed about 630 kilometres away at CUB’s brewery in Warnervale.

A more extreme example was Independent Liquor Group’s “Aussie Beer”. The product’s green and gold packaging said it was made from “Australia’s finest malt”, when it was actually made in China.

An Australian counterfeit specialist warned recently that “for any Australian company that wants to sell in China, the message is simple. You will be copied. Your trademark will be copied. Your intellectual property will be copied. Just accept it as fact.”

Imitation may well be said to be the sincerest form of flattery – but, when it comes to our fabulous Aussie food products, it is simply theft. We need to take every possible measure to ensure that our brands, and our producers, are strongly protected both here and overseas.

Jan Davis is CEO of the Agribusiness Association of Australia. This article, originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse, has been reposted here with full permission.