Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver has responded to complaints made by Australian vegetable growers who say they are being forced to fund his new campaign with supermarket giant Woolworths, saying he sympathises with the farmers’ cause but has “no sway” in the matter.
The popular English chef was drawn into the battle after Australia’s peak body for vegetable growers, AUSVEG, claimed Woolworths had demanded hundreds of thousands of dollars from individual growers to fund a campaign fronted by Oliver, in the form of a 40c per crate charge.
AUSVEG previously told SmartCompany growers were frightened they may be blacklisted and start to receive fewer orders for produce if they did not comply with the requests to fund the campaign.
The organisation appealed to Oliver to intervene on behalf of growers and on Friday night it received a letter from Guy Mottershead, chief executive of the Jamie Oliver Retail Group.
Mottershead said Woolworths had made it clear to the group the payments were voluntary and that many suppliers were happy to contribute.
“As I’m sure you know, Jamie is essentially an ‘employee’ of Woolworths and as such he has no sway regarding the commercial direction or negotiations that the Woolworths business takes,” said Mottershead.
“That said, no plea for help should be left unheard,” he said. “Jamie, naturally, is concerned when he hears about small producers suffering financial hardship and your letter will be discussed with Woolworths further at our next senior level meeting to ensure that farmers are completely clear about the aims of the programme.”
“The hope of everyone at Jamie Oliver is that AUSVEG and Woolworths can work together for the bigger goal of championing better nutrition across Australia and that in future such disputes could be discussed formally between parties rather than in the media, as on this occasion,” said Mottershead.
AUSVEG spokesperson William Churchill told SmartCompany the response from Oliver was “lacklustre”.
“We wanted a stronger position from Jamie, he could have taken more of a stand for hard-working farmers,” says Churchill.
“Their position is that Jamie is an employee of Woolworths, but I think Jamie is in a far greater position than they give him credit for,” he says.
But Churchill says the issue is essentially not about Oliver, but about Woolworths “double dipping into the already squeezed hip pockets of Australian farmers”.
He says if Woolworths truly cared about championing better nutrition in Australia, they wouldn’t ask farmers to carry the burden on the cost of the campaign.
“If they truly believed that, they would fund it themselves,” says Churchill.
Churchill says he wants to see Woolworths tangibly react to consumer outrage and drop the levy.