By Aimee Chanthadavong

Coles has paid six infringement notices totalling $61,200 for alleged misleading representations about the country of origin of fresh produce made in five of its stores between March and May 2013.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) took action following a complaint that Coles had displayed some imported navel oranges and kiwi fruit underneath price boards reading ‘Helping Australia Grow’ with the triangular ‘Australian Grown’ symbol. The ACCC surveyed a number of Coles stores – located across Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory – and found that the signage was also being used in other stores to advertise imported asparagus and almonds.

The ACCC alleges this signage gave the overall impression the imported produce was Australian grown, when it was not. The overseas country of origin was correctly identified either by stickers on the produce itself, on its packaging or under the display bin.

However, the ACCC considered the relatively small sized stickers or statements were not sufficient to correct the overwhelming impression of the ‘Helping Australia Grow’ campaign imagery that was associated with the sale of the product.

“Consumers should be able to rely on the accuracy of claims about food, particularly when they are prepared to pay a premium for products made in Australia. Misleading country of origin claims can also have a significant impact on the competitive process and hurt the local economy,” ACCC Chairman Rod Sims said.

“While this does not appear to be a case of widespread or systemic conduct, ‘Helping Australia Grow’ is a significant national campaign driven hard by Coles to advertise its fresh produce. This is a lesson to all retailers that they need to take care when undertaking significant advertising campaigns to ensure consumers are not misled by those campaigns.”

Coles told the ACCC  the conduct arose out of the relocation of stock within stores without updating the promotional imagery on the price boards. The ACCC nevertheless considered action was necessary given the importance consumers place on representations of this kind, and the importance of strong compliance processes when choosing to make such claims in the context of a widespread campaign.
Despite paying the fine, Coles advised RetailBiz it “does not believe that it has contravened any law”.

“Coles remains committed to its ‘Helping Australia Grow’ and ‘96% Australian fresh produce” advertising statements despite infringement notices issued by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over claims of misleading consumers,” a Coles spokesperson said.