There’s a modest organisation in Canberra called the National Food Industry Strategy, with the worthy aim of working with the food industry to help increase exports, increase investment in R&D and to become more efficient so they bring even better returns for the economy.

It’s been going for about two years and was set up to have a five year shelf life to pursue an ‘action agenda’ set by Government. What’s different is, that although the National Food Strategy is funded by the Australian Government it is entirely run by a private sector board of big business interests in the food industry (plus the NFF President), and Minister Warren Truss has told them they can make the decisions on where the money is spent. No questions asked.

About 75% of these R&D grants, known as FIGs, have gone to the big food companies who are members of the main manufactured food lobby organisation, the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

This was the first public ventilation of potential conflicts in this particular area of federal corporate welfare, but it hasn’t changed what is going on. On Wednesday last week Warren Truss announced the latest round of Food Innovation Grants, or FIGs. The last one listed was as follows:

Simplot Australia

New processing technologies for development of improved and healthier potato products

Total project cost: $1.916 million
FIG contribution: $917,786

And who sits on the National Food Industry Group board? None other than Simplot Australia managing director Terry O’Brien. Nice.

We trust that Mr O’Brien would have left the room when this decision was taken. But if most of the people left in the room were CEOs of companies that had also received a hand out, they would be in a difficult position to then deny Simplot on the grounds of a conflict.

Sure, Idaho spud farmer JR Simplot paid too much when he bought part of Pacific Dunlop’s food empire in 1995, but is it really appropriate that taxpayers hand over nearly $1 million to an American billionaire, especially when his Aussie boss sits on the board deciding who should collect the cash.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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