WORK practices by potato and olive oil giant, The Mitolo Group, have come under scrutiny with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission instituting proceedings against the company over standard form contracts with potato farmers.
It will the first case of court action being taken over an alleged breach of the Horticulture Code of Conduct, which came into full effect on April 1 this year.
It’s alleged the Mitolo Group enters into exclusive supply contracts with potato farmers for a specified volume of fresh potatoes each season but does not determine the price it will pay until the potatoes are ready for harvest.
The ACCC alleges the contract terms which are unfair include ones that allow Mitolo to:
ACCC deputy chair, Mick Keogh, said it will also be the first action over unfair contract terms action in the agriculture industry.
“The issues in this case go to the heart of concerns about unfairness in the agriculture sector that led to the establishment of the ACCC’s dedicated Agriculture Unit, which is investigating agricultural supply chains and engaging with the sector,” Mr Keogh said.
The ACCC says Mitolo’s contracts also contain a term preventing farmers from selling their own property unless the prospective purchaser enters into an exclusive potato farming agreement with Mitolo, which the ACCC also alleges is an unfair contract term.
“These are some of the most egregious terms we have seen in agricultural contracts, and are key examples of the contracting practices in the sector that we want to address,” Mr Keogh said.
“We believe that these terms have caused, or could cause, significant detriment to farmers, by passing a heavy burden of risk down to farmers, the most vulnerable player in the supply chain.
The ACCC also alleges that Mitolo is trading with potato farmers under contracts that do not comply with the pricing requirements of the Horticulture Code, by:
The ACCC is seeking declarations that the relevant clauses in Mitolo’s contracts are unfair contract terms and void, declarations that Mitolo breached the Horticulture Code, penalties for breaches of the Horticulture Code, injunctions, compliance program orders and costs.
Mitolo is the largest potato wholesaler in Australia and a major supplier to supermarkets.
Good Fruit & Vegetables contacted the Mitolo Group for comment.
MITOLO’S contract terms came to the ACCC’s attention via complaints from industry associations and farmers in engagement work conducted by the ACCC’s Agriculture Unit and followed its wider review of standard form contracts in the agriculture sector after the business-to-business unfair contract terms provisions in the Australian Consumer Law came into effect in November 2016.
Contracts covered include those between businesses if one of them employs fewer than 20 people and the up-front price payable does not exceed $300,000 (or up to $1 million for contracts running for more than a year).
Traders are exposed to penalties of up to $63,000 for each instance of trading without a Horticulture Code compliant agreement.
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