Australian buyers may not know their onions

Adam Leach is a freelance business journalist
12 January 2016

Australian retailers Coles and Woolworths are at the centre of claims that growers have been passing off foreign onions as Australian.

Industry body Onions Australia, which represents domestic onion growers and suppliers, has confirmed it has launched an investigation into multiple growers suspected of importing extra supplies and repackaging them as 'grown in Australia' before selling them on to the retailers and other customers.

Should the claims be proved, the ramifications for Coles and Woolworths will be particularly significant since made a pledge in 2012 to only sell home-grown onions.

The investigation, expected to last several weeks, is intended to uncover the scale of abuse across the industry but also raise awareness of the potential for foreign produce to be missold as home grown. However, Kees Versteeg, chair of Onions Australia admitted that proving any abuse will be difficult.

“It's about making the industry and Australia aware that these things can happen," he said. "It’s been possible to get away with it because no one is policing it and it’s difficult to prove.”
Despite the claims, Coles is backing its supply base and onion procurement process by refuting the claims, stating an internal investigation is unneccesary.

"We have great faith in our growers," said Brad Gorman, fresh produce manager at Coles. "They grow with integrity, they support Australian jobs and there's absolutely no reason for us to investigate them."

While admitting that there were sometimes issues in meeting overall demand as a result of its 'no import' rule, Gorman explained that the chosen remedy was to put alternatives on offer in the store. Supplies of white onions have been under particular stress recently, but the company claimed to be working with growers to resolve the issue.

A spokesman for Woolworths said: "Woolworths maintains strong relationships with our onion suppliers and we are satisfied that our suppliers are providing great quality Australian grown onions to our customers. We ensure this is the case by working closely with our suppliers and undertaking regular audits of their farms throughout the year in Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia."

Irrespective of the outcome of the investigation, Onions Australia is calling on retailers to put in stricter oversight of suppliers to ensure those that claim to only supply home-grown produce, actually do it.

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