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Australia penalises vege wholesaler for trading with a grower without a written agreement

Editorial Staff

Stuart Dickson Produce Pty Ltd is a Sydney fruit and vegetable wholesaler. The company has been issued with an AUD10,500 penalty notice for buying produce from growers without a written "Horticulture Produce Agreement" (inevitably known as an HPA) in place. But, while the notice has been announced, the ACCC which issued and publicised it, doesn't stand behind it with any great force.

Throughout the media release circulated on 17th August, the Australian Competition and Consumers Commission (ACCC) uses the word "allegedly" or versions of it. For example "Stuart Dickson’s alleged non-compliance with the 2017 Horticulture Code came to light following a compliance check the ACCC conducted with 15 fruit and vegetable wholesalers which revealed Stuart Dickson did not have a HPA in place with a significant number of growers."

The ACCC justifies the action by saying "“A Wholesaler trading with growers without written HPAs increases growers’ commercial risks, as they do not have certainty regarding critical terms of trade, such as how their produce will be graded, the price they will get paid and when they will get paid.” Well, yes, obviously, but why, one has to ask, is this a matter for regulation? The answer, one assumes, is that to prevent cartels amongst wholesalers.

But, the surprise comes when ACCC Deputy Chairman Mick Keogh says "Horticulture wholesalers have been required since 2006 to have written agreements in place with growers under the mandatory industry code, and they should be careful to ensure they understand their obligations under the Code. There is no good excuse for not having written agreements in place when this has been a requirement since 2006."

This is not, then a part of Australia's recent move towards a closely regulated society in which the government seems to be determined to exercise more and more detailed control over the lives of Australians.

ACCC says "The 2017 Horticulture Code applies to all growers and wholesalers trading in horticulture produce (i.e. fruit, vegetables, herbs and nuts) and replaced a previous code. A key requirement of both the current and preceding codes is that horticulture wholesalers trade with written HPAs in place.

"Prior to the 2017 Horticulture Code coming into full force on 1 April 2018, the ACCC worked with industry bodies to conduct education and awareness around the new Code’s requirements, including the fact that infringement notices could be issued."

So, that only leaves one outstanding question: why, if this is such a big deal, is the ACCC unwilling to make a clear statement and not hide behind the weasel word "alleged"? It's wishy-washy and weak and cowardly and frankly undermines the credibility of the process - and it smacks of bullying. They might as well have said "look, we can't prove it, or we can't be arsed to prove it, but we're going to demand AUD10,500 and if you don't pay up then we will prove it and it'll cost you more." That is not the way good government is supposed to work. It's extortion.

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