ADDING country of origin labelling to pub, club and restaurant menus is an option that’s being explored by Australian Pork Limited (APL) to try to ease severe pricing pain caused by cheap imported pork products like ribs.
APL CEO Andrew Spencer says the volume of part-processed, longer-lasting pork items being imported into Australia - which has attributed to a recent dramatic price drop - isn’t as large as his industry first anticipated.
But he said that market segment remained an ongoing concern for the Australian pork industry and its producers, with some being forced to sell stock below production costs, hence the moves to explore new country of origin labelling measures.
“These imported products are not going to stop coming into Australia,” he said.
“Due to biosecurity arrangements we’ve considered the fresh pork market to be ours exclusively but as innovative people do, they have found a way to bring in imported products and still compete with us in that fresh pork market by cooking the product, either here or before its lands on our shores.
“And even things like ribs - which are retorted or sterilised and cooked at high temperatures - are now being imported and competing with us in the food service market involving pubs, clubs and restaurants and that’s where country of origin issues are a much smaller deal.
“In retail, whether a product is Australian or not, makes a big difference to a consumer – but people don’t ask about country of origin when they go to restaurants or clubs and it’s not on a menu.
“This is where we’re quite vulnerable and where will be ongoing competition for us – but the advantage we have is that our product is fresh, it’s very high quality and it’s a much better product on your plate in a restaurant.”
The federal Coalition government has made ground-breaking changes to country of origin labelling to help consumers better-identify a product’s authenticity - but that new regime doesn’t extend to restaurant menus.
However, Mr Spencer said APL was holding ongoing talks with various groups to explore the option of adding country of origin labels to menus at such venues, which would have an impact on price returns to Australian producers.
“We’re really having a close look at this at the moment,” he said.
“We know the seafood industry has had a very high interest in this area so we’re talking to them about it as well.
“We know it can be a bit of a burden on those operations but it doesn’t have to be particularly difficult for imported products to be identified on the menu and we think in terms of consumer informed choice, that’s a positive thing for customers.
“We’re having a really close look at that and discussing it with some of the states and throwing the idea around with some of the federal departments too.”
Asked what country of origin labelling would look like on food service menus, Mr Spencer said he didn’t know but sending the right message was a key to the solution.
“Part of the challenge is to make sure we keep all of those very attractive parts of the story that goes with the food,” he said.
“And certainly if it’s Australian or if the imported food has its own story, it’s important to allow those stories to be properly expressed, while at the end of the day making sure the customer knows where their food comes from and allowing the origin of the food to be expressed on the menu.”
Figures provided by APL show that the price per kilogram of baconers (60-75kgs) climbed steadily from about $2.40 in early 2011 to a peak of $3.76 in February 2016 - but since then it has plunged to $2.70.
APL says pork consumption remains up, herd numbers are steady and slaughter volumes are also increasing - but the $2.70 per kilogram price is threatening producer viability and it’s the line where they are selling below production costs.
Mr Spencer said APL had been gathering data to measure the volume of imported products like retorted ribs that are being served in clubs and restaurants but it had been a challenge to obtain accurate figures.
“At the moment it’s all mixed in together with products like canned meat – but nevertheless we have had some success in identifying the sorts of volumes that have been coming in and maybe they weren’t as high as we originally thought,” he said.
‘But these products aren’t going to go away and our ability to compete with them is quite painful because they’re quite cheap.
“If we want to go in at the same price that’s painful so we need to ensure people understand the positive attributes and benefits that the local product brings.
“For things like imported, retorted ribs coming in from NZ for example, via Europe, it’s in the hundreds of tonnes over the past six months or so, probably approaching 1000 tonnes or slightly over that.
“That’s our best guess at the moment but in future we’ll have a much better handle on that.
“The government has been working with us to re-design how import statistics are taken in future and that will enable us to have a much better feel for what products are coming in and from where.”
Mr Spencer said APL thought the import volumes were much higher, in impacting prices.
“If you look at the volume of ribs we actually produce in Australian on our carcases in a year it’s tens of thousands of tonnes but as you know, in economics, you don’t need a lot of product to pull the price down, if that competitive threat is out there,” he said.
But he said that market segment was only one part of the story and an “array of issues” has attributed to causing prices to collapse.
“We do have more pigs in the market now and production has gone up which is more to do with productivity, not even to do with an expansion of sow numbers or anything like that,” he said.
“The last 12 months has been very productive and our industry should be congratulated for getting better at what they do.
“We also had a fire at one of our major processing operations in Queensland which had an impact on capacity and once you have pigs backing up it creates an environment where confidence can be hurt and prices start spiralling down due to over-supply and that’s what happened.
“The imports are still significant and it’s an issue we’ll be keeping an eye on - but most consumers who have tried the imported ribs have rejected them and returned to the local product, because the quality wasn’t there.”