With an extensive career in the food industry, Managing Director of Simplot Australia and Chair of the Australian Food & Grocery Council (AFGC) Terry O’Brien says it’s important to have a broad contextual view of the future of the food industry.

What are Australia’s biggest opportunities in food?

Australia has three main strengths in terms of food production: quality raw materials, a skilled workforce and high standards of food safety.

In terms of raw materials, this is mainly crops, although does include other raw materials. Australia has excellent control regimes for pesticides and the various additives that are used to grow crops.

We also have the benefit of a skilled workforce, albeit expensive. There is no doubt that we have a lot of experience here in food manufacturing and have plenty of people around to deliver on the promise.

There is also a very high standard of food safety when it comes to food manufacturing systems in Australia, with extremely vigilant regulators and optimal food safety systems across all levels. In fact, this high level of food safety is one of the major appeals of the Australian market to Asia. It’s the safety of the original outputs, the safety around how it is manufactured and the safety around how the product is shipped and handled.

What are the obstacles?

As a pretty high cost-base country, we are constantly trying to defend ourselves from imports, although find it a little difficult to export to the extent that we would like to. And, despite exports growing, it is in niche areas.

Australian food producers are also a little resistant to change, particularly in our agricultural community where we have an older farming base than other countries. 

As an example, we have quite a big potato business in China. When Australia first starting producing there 20 years ago, the farmers in China would transport the potatoes on their three-wheeled bikes. Nowadays, the potatoes are transported in B-double trucks just as anywhere in the western world. The average farmer in China now is providing 3 – 4,000 tonnes of potato, whereas in Tasmania our average is 900 tonnes. This goes to show how countries who started off way behind us, have surpassed us in their approach to food production. These countries have knocked their fences over, they’ve combined their operations, they have invested in bigger equipment and they have taken bigger risks.

How can the industry make sure it has a sustainable future?

We need to reduce non-value adding regulation. This is difficult as a lot of regulation is there to support issues such as food safety and Occupational Health and Safety, although there is various regulation that has been superseded and should be now taken out.

The food industry as a whole needs to take a better view of what might be a controversial future. Whether you are a farmer, producer, manufacturer, or technologist, everyone in the food industry needs to adopt a broad contextual setting, encompassing a historical, future and more global context of the industry.