Woolworths has cancelled a ''critically important'' meeting between Australian farmers and 40 international buyers, the growers' peak body claims, in retaliation for their public protest against being made to pay for a campaign starring Jamie Oliver.
AusVeg said on Wednesday morning – the day Fairfax Media reported Woolworths was charging farmers to cover the cost of its ''Jamie's Garden'' campaign – the supermarket declared it had cancelled a visit from Asian buyers at its Sydney distribution centre.
''I think it’s petulant behaviour, I think it’s churlish, it’s mean-spirited,'' Richard Mulcahy, chief executive of AusVeg, said. ''It's fairly obvious it's linked to the adverse media they're receiving about Jamie Oliver.''
Woolworth confirmed the meeting had been cancelled. Its communications manager Russell Mahoney said the ''buyers were unavailable''.
Mr Mulcahy said the 40 buyers flying in from Asian countries such as Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia and Hong Kong were all keen to begin talks on acquiring Australian produce.
''The meeting is critically important for our industry. We have been supportive of the federal government's attempts to get FTAs in various countries,'' he said. ''We need to make our trading partners welcome here, when they want to come to Australia and invest money into an industry under pressure.''
AusVeg launched a public protest over a 40¢-a-crate ''Jamie Oliver levy'' that was costing farmers tens of thousands of dollars. Woolworths has copped consumer backlash on social media.
The call on Monday morning to AusVeg was made by a government relations executive.
''We think this is extremely unreasonable behaviour. It's not in the Australian national interest to turn away valuable purchases from Asia,'' Mr Mulcahy said. He said his office had briefed Federal Agricultural Minister Barnaby Joyce on the issue, seeking his intervention.
But on Thursday night, Mr Joyce’s office ‘‘absolutely confirmed’’ no representative from AusVeg had briefed the minister.
AusVeg, which represents 9000 growers, has lodged a complaint about the ''unreasonable'' charge with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which has confirmed it was ''aware of the concerns''.
Long-time fruit supplier to Woolworths Rowan Little from Montague Fresh said the supermarket chain's behaviour did not align with his past experiences with its buyers. ''It seems strange, it's [not in keeping] with normal practice."
He said he was among half the suppliers who had agreed to contribute to the Jamie Oliver campaign, but rather than the 40¢-a-crate charge, he was able to negotiate an amount based on sale increases.
''At the meeting about the [Jamie Oliver] collectibles, there was no suggestion of a rate ... never an indication about a compulsory levy or charge. It was totally voluntary,'' Mr Little said.