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July 13, 2024

Is it really ‘made in Byron’?

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A closer look at food labelling

byron-food-local-graphPaul Bibby

Walk into any local supermarket or grocery store and you’ll see at least a dozen products proudly emblazoned with the name ‘Byron Bay’.

Their colourful labels weave images of rich soil, sun-drenched hillsides, and local producers with authentic, personal connections to the land.

Motivated by a desire to be healthy and to support local, sustainable food production, many of us gravitate towards these products as a matter of course, proudly filling our baskets and trolleys with food and drink bearing the Byron brand.

But just how local are they?

An investigation by The Echo has revealed that while most products using the Byron name have some local connection, there is a serious lack of clarity about where the ingredients come from and whether the product is actually made in the Shire.

It has also emerged that, under Australia’s labelling laws, companies are not required to say how ‘local’ their products are, and are only likely to face penalties in cases of blatant deception.

‘It’s a timely reminder that consumers should always read the fine print,’ says Stefanie Meyers, a spokesperson from the consumer watchdog Choice.

‘Associating a product to a particular geographical region leads consumers to believe that such products hold a unique benefit when compared to what else is in the market,’ she says.

‘Whether claiming it’s grapes from the Barossa Valley or coffee beans from Byron Bay, consumers will always pay a premium for a product which boasts superior credentials.’

Too big for Byron

A small number of companies using the Byron name no longer grow or make any part of their products locally.

Often the owners of these businesses started local, but eventually decided that, in order to expand, they needed to source their ingredients from elsewhere and shift their manufacturing operations out of the region.

One example is the Byron Bay Chilli Co whose sauces, salsa and corn chips are on shelves across the region.

Started more than three decades ago by John and Lynne Boland on their property at Goonengerry, the Chilli Co has expanded from a local market stall to a business with products in thousands of stores across the globe.

These days, none of the ingredients used in any the company’s products is grown or made in the northern rivers.

The company’s Corn Chips are made in New Zealand using New Zealand corn.

The chillis used in its salsas and sauces are imported from Central America.

Some products are manufactured in Australia, but none of this work is done in the Shire by local people.

Nevertheless, John Boland staunchly defends his company’s right to use the Byron Bay name.

Began in Byron

‘Byron Bay is at the heart of our story,’ he says.

‘We put in the hard work here from the beginning.

‘It just got to the point where we couldn’t be competitive and sell our products at a comparable price and we wanted to do that.’

He also argues that the Byron Bay Chilli Co name has transcended its location ‘like New York Cheesecake or Old El Paso’.

‘They don’t come from those places, but people don’t expect them to,’ he says.

Ingredient issue

While most products using the Byron name maintain a more tangible connection to the region, a number use few or no locally grown ingredients, particularly at certain times of the year.

For example, a number of local coffee brands roast and package their coffee products locally but source their beans from interstate and overseas.

Other producers use one or two local ingredients in their products depending on price and availability.

For example, Byron Bay Honey continues to source some of its honey locally, but some comes from further afield.

The statement on the company’s website that the nectar used to make the honey is ‘reflective of the flora between Mt Warning-Wollumbin in the north and the vast Bundjalung National Park…’ does little to clarify things.

Using the Byron brand name

Speaking in general terms about companies using the Byron name, the owner and founder of Zentveld’s Coffee, Rebecca Zentveld, says more transparency is needed.

‘I think we need to be really clear and answer the question, ‘Does that food product contain local ingredients?’ she asks.

‘We’d like to see the people doing the hard yakka of growing get the recognition of that local name.’

While most products making use of the Byron brand are manufactured locally, a number take raw local ingredients and then ship them off to other places for production.

It means that they employ few if any local people.

Byron Bay Chopping Blocks, for example, uses wood from local camphor laurel trees which is then trucked out of the region for production elsewhere.

The operation is run from an office in Bondi.

The Echo understands that a certain Melbourne-based food company gathers its ingredients in Byron and then prepares and bottles the product in Victoria for sale all over the country.  

Labelling laws

So are there any circumstances in which a food producer can’t use the Byron Bay name? Michael Schaper, the deputy chair of the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), says companies are forbidden from using labels that are ‘misleading or deceptive’.

‘The question is, “What impression does this create in the mind of an ordinary consumer?”’ Mr Schaper asks.

‘Just giving a product a name that refers to a particular area – when the product doesn’t really come from there – may not be in breach of the law.

‘We’ve actually got to prove in court that the ordinary Australian consumer would assume something from the label that is not true.’

CUB cops $20k ACCC fine

Such cases are few and far between in the Byron Shire.

The only recent and successful ACCC investigation into a company falsely claiming it was from Byron Bay was in 2014, when beer giant Carlton United (CUB) started selling a ‘boutique’ beer under the name Byron Bay Pale Lager.

The label included picture of the Byron Lighthouse, a spiel extolling the region’s many virtues and a map showing the location of the Byron Bay Brewing Company.

In fact the beer was brewed by 630km away in Warnervale. CUB was forced to pay $20,400 in fines and to stop selling the product immediately.

Mr Schaper describes Australia’s labelling laws as ‘a powerful piece of legislation’.

However, they essentially leave consumers in the dark about how ‘local’ a product really is because producers are not required to meet specific criteria on their labels.

Transparency

Anne Briggs, the executive officer of the local food producers network Northern Rivers Food, says she would ‘love to see’ more transparent labelling laws along similar lines to the guidelines her organisation uses.

She says, ‘To become a [Northern Rivers Food] member, a company needs to have its headquarters here, [and demonstrate] that they’re employing local people and that, where there are local ingredients, it is prioritising those over others.

‘We need to see more authenticity [in labelling].’

She says this will not only help consumers in their choices but also small local producers.

‘Smaller producers do need that point of difference, and being able to say that they’re local provides that,’ she says.

‘If just anyone can say they’re local then it does undermine brand Byron.’  

In the meantime, it’s a case of consumers beware.

The product bearing that colourful label may well not be as local as you think.

Story update September 28, 2017: Ingredients for Byron Bay Chilli Co Chips are made from New Zealand corn, not Spanish cornflour as originally published. Also Byron Bay Chilli Co’s chillies come from Central America, not the southern US and Mexico as originally published.


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7 COMMENTS

  1. Cape Byron Sports is another example. It was a large local importer and distributor at the Byron Arts & Industry Estate but was sold a few years ago to a big Sydney company. The region lost dozens of jobs and there is now no connection to the Bay and yet the new owners, Sperling, have continued to trade with the name and the purported link. At least Byron Bay Chilli is still owned locally (by the sounds of it). Cape Byron Sports is owned in Sydney, operated in Sydney, uses products imported from overseas with no connection to Byron, and yet they still use the name. Check them out http://www.capebyronsports.com.au/

    • John, the Echo is 100% locally owned. Newspaper presses are huge operations so no independents own their own press anymore. The paper used in printing is sustainably sourced.

  2. Wow… a lot of self-righteous indignation going around for some reason. We have been the Byron Bay Chilli Company for 25 years. Where were you when we were doing the Taste of Byron street festivals, the Byron Bay/Bangalow/Channon Markets, feeding the homeless, rolling tacos at OzyMex, employing hundreds of local workers over the years? I think it is safe to say that we were one of the innovators of good quality chilli sauce in Oz. Nobody can take that away from us. In order to trademark our brand we had to give extensive evidence to demonstrate that we had an established right to that name… wrote a small book in fact, and the examiners were satisfied. Do any of you remember the sewerage moratorium in Byron Bay? No chance of building a sauce factory back then, even if we had the funds. We had no choice but to find a packer in Brisbane, just to keep up with the demand. Slowly we have grown, doing what we like to do… interacting with people and watching the looks on their faces when they first try our sauces. Years ago it could be hard to even get people to try our sauces at shows and demos… now, they usually ask which is the hottest and go straight for that. Lynne and I love growing our facebook and website recipe pages, and playing a small part in the evolution of fusion cuisine in Australia. Paul, I know you are trying to prove yourself somehow, but I really think you could have chosen something more substantial to investigate. Growing a brand is just as labour intensive as growing food… we are very proud of what we have accomplished and how many tastebuds we have entertained….

    • I thought the article did acknowledge your long-standing and the enormous efforts that you made to build the brand from scratch John.

      You were quoted and given a chance to explain the situation – bascially that scaling up and out meant not remaining as just a Byron-centric operation. There’s no shame in that. Good onya, but the article is hardly unfair about that.

      Understand you might be a bit touchy about it, but no need for that, carry on and keep doing what you are doing (making those tasty sauces).

      • Randy, John got 5 minutes on the phone with Paul.

        Not exactly enough time to say much of anything.

        John’s has worked practically 7 days a week for 24 years to create the business he has.

        Paul was not in possession of all the facts, and got some of the facts he did have wrong (corn flour??)

        My dad shouldn’t have to defend his locality to a journalist who has spent less than a year living in Byron Shire, reporting for a newspaper printed on non-local materials.

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