Popular chef Jamie Oliver is at the center of an Australian controversy involving supermarket giant Woolworths and the farmers who supply produce to the store. The argument essentially revolves around the fact that Woolworths wants growers to foot the bill for their expensive campaign featuring Oliver, a move that has prompted the representative body AUSVEG to ask the chef to intervene. The thinking is that Oliver’s position as a public figure gives him the needed leverage to make a difference. A response from his management, however, claims he is only an employee of Woolworths and has no say in the matter. As some commentators have observed, this is not the role the celebrity chef saw for himself when the partnership was announced, and he is directly benefitting from the levy on Aussie farmers.
Jamie Oliver does not come cheap. He has numerous television shows, cookbooks, and initiatives that have made him the rich and popular personality he is today. The partnership with Woolworths was not only a big expansion of his culinary empire into the Land Down Under, but it came with a massive price tag. As of the moment, neither Oliver nor Woolworths have disclosed just how much that price was, but it has been noted that the chef’s wealth increased by about 90 million British pounds, or about $152.4 million in United States terms. Woolworths benefits from Oliver’s image as an ethical and healthy food personality. Oliver benefits from an added source of income.
Woolworths seems intent on getting the biggest bang for their buck–or in this case, the farmer’s buck. The supermarket chain is demanding a 40 cent levy on every crate of produce sold to them by the Aussie growers, in effect making them pay for the Oliver campaign. This is in addition to the 2.5 to five percent charge Woolworths makes growers pay in order to fund normal marketing of produce. The additional 40 cent levy on top of the existing levy has been labelled as “double-dipping” by critics and hurts growers, who make only one dollar of profit on every crate of produce they sell to the supermarket. After the new levy, that slim profit margin is cut to 60 cents. This is compared to the massive size of Woolworths’ net profits, which in February was reported to be $1.32 billion.
The discrepancy between the cost to growers and the huge growth in profits that Jamie Oliver and Woolworths are seeing has prompted AUSVEG to lodge a formal complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) about the matter. William Churchill, a spokesman for AUSVEG, notes that growers were not warned about the new levy, nor have they been informed as to what return they will see from it. At the moment, it does not look as though they are going to see much. Woolworths maintains the levy is paid on a voluntary basis and growers do not have to participate. Churchill’s response is that many growers, despite being outraged, are also afraid that if they do not pay the levy they will, in essence, be fired. Woolworths controls its supply very tightly and could cease to partner with certain growers as a kind of retribution. At least that is the worry that has led to the current situation.
Other than the fact that he is the commodity being paid for, Jamie Oliver seems to have little to do with the situation. Oliver’s management group maintains the superstar chef is “essentially an employee of Woolworths and has no sway regarding the commercial direction or negotiations the business takes.” That may be true, but it oversimplifies the issue. Oliver is not just an employee. He is a world-renowned chef whose star power could be used to sway Woolworths into changing their policy. That is what AUSVEG wants him to do and that is the reason why Jamie Oliver is at the center of the controversy with Australian farmers.
The idea that Oliver is a mere employee also goes against what the chef has billed himself to be. In a promotional video for the new ad campaign, Oliver explained that he would be “working across the whole of the business, at the front and back end.” This would seem to imply he has more power than he claims. To pull back from this statement either reveals the exaggeration that permeates the entire ad campaign, or reveals an unscrupulousness on the part of Oliver, who does not want to lose money by going up against Woolworths, his new employer. The first possibility would seriously call into question the trustworthiness of the ad campaign, exposing it as nothing more than a money-making stunt. This could hurt Woolworths’ relationship with customers who would realize they are being misled by the advertising.
The second possibility, on the other hand, could seriously harm Oliver’s image. He has billed himself as a “chef of the people” in many ways, offering cheaper, healthier options for people to eat. It is this persona which allowed Oliver to claim in a video that “part of what I’m doing with Woolies is looking at standards, and ethics, of where our sort of food comes from.” In a day and age where business ethics can be a big selling point for consumers, Oliver could be taking a serious misstep by trying to stay out of this Australian farmer controversy. By refusing to side with the growers, and not doing what is perceived to be ethically “right” by them, he may be damaging his brand as a “good guy chef.”
Woolworths maintains that around half of its farmers have chosen to work with them and to pay the voluntary levy for Oliver’s ad campaign. AUSVEG is continuing its attempts to work for those farmers it says are hurt and outraged by the levy, but it looks like an uphill battle. Independent Senator Nick Xenophon, who was rated as Australia’s most trusted politician by Reader’s Digest, has thrown his support behind AUSVEG and the growers. His influence, however, pales in comparison to that of Oliver, whose voice could be extremely instrumental in helping the growers. Instead, the chef and his management maintain he is a mere employee, making him look more like a corporate shill than an ethical foody. Being at the center of the controversy with Australian farmers is giving Jamie Oliver a choice to prove he is as ethical as he claims, or prove money is more important.
Opinion By Lydia Bradbury