House debates

Wednesday, 24 August 2011


Food Security

7:32 pm

Photo of John ForrestJohn Forrest (Mallee, National Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I want to use this opportunity to lament yet another piece of Australian history that seems to be heading offshore, with more and more Australian food processors being purchased by offshore interests. It is a real concern to my constituency that this trend of purchase by overseas interests, particularly of food handling, is increasing dramatically. In the last few years we have seen the barley handling process—the Australian Barley Board—sold to the Canadians and now called Viterra. Our wheat and grain handling companies were purchased by the Americans; Cargill now owns what was the iconic Australian Wheat Board, AWB Ltd.

Sadly, it now seems it is the turn of that Sunraysia icon, Sunbeam Foods. The jury is out as to whether a Chinese investment in this important sector of Australian horticulture will be beneficial or detrimental to my Mallee constituents. It seems that the Bright Food Group—a Shanghai municipal government-owned assets management authority—on Wednesday, 17 August announced the purchase of 75 per cent of Manussen Foods, the owner of Mildura's iconic Sunbeam Group of dried fruit, citrus and juice businesses.

Sunbeam's predecessor, Co-operative Dried Fruit Sales, was formed in 1926 by three local packing companies—the Mildura Co-operative Fruit Company, Irymple Packing and Sarnia Packing. None of those entities still exist. The Sunbeam logo is steeped in the heritage of the Sunraysia area, depicting golden, bright rays of sunshine and encompassing all that is Sunraysia: the sun-drenched region with its fertile, rich red soil, irrigated by Australia's largest river, the Murray, that produces the golden dried fruit that is world renowned. In more recent times Sunbeam Foods merged two companies—its joint owners Mildura Co-operative Fruit Company and Irymple Packing—to become Sunbeam Foods Group, operating three divisions: Sunbeam Foods, Mildura Fruit Company and Mildura Fruit Juices. Soon after, Sunbeam Foods was taken over by Manussen Foods, a Sydney-based management company, to the dismay of many locals at the time, including myself. Now, in 2011, majority ownership of this iconic company, which is part of the Mildura region's heritage, seems to be heading offshore.

I am not opposed to foreign investment. When I look at Australia's great history, from colonial times prosperity and development relied on foreign investment. But I am concerned that in this new era with its mantra of food security it is other countries that are taking more interest in that than Australians are. We are losing more and more control of our food-processing and food-gathering entities. This is not foreign investment to secure development for our nation, as has been our historical trend; this investment is more in the interests of those countries investing. It is a particular concern that a Chinese government-owned entity is purchasing this entity and I wonder if it is truly in the national interest.

The sale will be scrutinised by the Australian Foreign Investment Review Board, because the cost is well above the threshold and, more importantly, the purchasing entity is a government-owned enterprise in China. It is crucial that the FIRB take a close look at this. I encourage my constituents who have expressed their concern to make a submission and, while the Foreign Review Investment Board is not able to advertise the fact that it is conducting an inquiry, the purchasers themselves have announced it. I am encouraging my constituents to make their submissions. I think it is important to recognise the historical connection of Sunbeam Foods to Sunraysia and I think it is important for the Foreign Investment Review Board to recognise that this is not an investment by Chinese companies in development. Whilst it may well be in the interests of opening new market opportunities, that could be achieved without the full purchase of a controlling interest in Sunbeam Foods.

So I await with interest the deliberations of the Foreign Investment Review Board, and ultimately the position that the government might take in any advice it receives from the board.