Seafood cheaper but staples will cost more this Christmas

Seafood cheaper but staples will cost more this Christmas

December 11, 2020

Australians will pay less for seafood delicacies but more for everyday staples as the coronavirus pandemic and China’s trade restrictions turn prices on their head in the countdown to Christmas.

Overseas labour shortages are set to drive up the price of summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and grapes, while China’s blocking of a growing list of exports have made locally caught lobster far more affordable than last year.

Fish Shoppe owner Renee PearceCredit:Wayne Taylor

China’s decision to halt imports of Australian rock lobster has ignited calls from the seafood industry for supermarkets to stock more local offerings rather than focusing on imported products.

The cost of locally caught lobster is set to fall by up to 50 per cent this year.

Seafood Industry Association chief executive Veronica Papacosta said the plummeting prices provided an opportunity for major supermarkets to support the Australian industry.

She conceded the major retailers could not simply walk away from existing supply relationships, but insisted Australians wanted to back local fishers to prevent their businesses collapsing.

“If the Australian product is available, [retailers] have a duty to the community to get it to them,” she said. “It’s about getting this product to the community at a great price so we can take advantage of that locally.”

Festive food costs: What's up, what's down

  • Lobster to fall by up to 50 per cent
  • Summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and grapes to rise by up to 25 per cent
  • Cherries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries up to 10 per cent cheaper

Ms Papacosta said supermarkets had tended to stock imported lobster because it was cheaper than “premium” Australian lobster.

Woolworths announced on Friday it would significantly boost the amount of rock lobster it sourced from Western Australia, offering the delicacy for $20 each, which is half the price they fetched this time last year. It estimates it will sell 35 tonnes of WA lobster, up from 6.5 tonnes last year.

Victorian Rock Lobster Association president Markus Nolle says shoppers want to support the local industry.Credit:Justin McManus

“What are supermarkets going to change in their behaviour to play their role in all of this?” he said.

Mr Nolle described the Woolworths deal to stock more WA lobsters as "tokenism" and would account for a tiny proportion of the catch in WA.

“If you give people the choice about supporting the local industry, you’ll see people are happy to do it.”

Aldi confirmed it was selling lobsters sourced from Canada, and while Coles and Woolworths stock WA rock lobster, they do not sell lobster from Victoria.

A Coles spokeswoman said that since the pandemic, the supermarket had signed up dozens of new producers and increased orders from suppliers who had been unable to reach their regular customers due to export restrictions or the closure of restaurants.

“We are passionate about quality Australian produce and welcome conversations with any Australian supplier facing a similar situation as a result of COVID,” she said.

The cost of some fruit and vegetables is expected to increase by up to 25 per cent due to a lack of foreign workers. Credit:Eddie Jim

The southern rock lobster industry is worth about $260 million, with 95 per cent of the catch exported, mainly to China. By comparison, the western rock lobster industry is worth $500 million with a similar amount exported to China.

Consumers can expect to take advantage of cheaper cherries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries, with Coles reporting that these fruits are in good supply and nearly 10 per cent cheaper than the same time last year.

But the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance expects the price of summer vegetables, stone fruit, apples, pears and grapes to rise by up to 25 per cent as a result of overseas labour shortages.

Alliance chief executive Michael Rogers said urgent action was needed to ensure there were enough foreign and local workers for seasonal farm work.

“We are concerned about price rises because of worker shortages at Christmas time. But our bigger concern is through to June next year,” he said.

The Victorian rock lobster industry has been hit hard by China’s decision to halt imports. Credit:Joe Armao

Tony Battaglene, the chief executive of Australian Grape and Wine Incorporated, said wine prices would remain stable at Christmas, despite rumours of price drops due to China’s trade restrictions.

He said this was due to three low-volume vintages, which had led to a shortage of wine across many grape-growing regions. Mr Battaglene said only 10 per cent of the wine grown in Australia was exported to China.

Smoke taint caused by the summer bushfires has also put a dent in some producers’ crops, exacerbating supply issues.

“We worry that there will be a perception that there will be a lot of wine floating around at Christmas and it will be cheap and that’s just not going to be the case,” Mr Battaglene said.

Fish Shoppe owner Renee Pearce, who has seafood stores in Collingwood and South Melbourne, said her customers were looking for local lobster particularly for special occasions.

She said prices had fallen for Victorian lobster to between $80 and $100 a kilogram this year compared with up to $150 last year.

“Our customers are more aware of the Victorian rock lobster. They tend to ask for those,” Ms Pearce said.

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