Amid continuing disquiet about the collateral damage being caused to food suppliers, including farmers, by fierce price warfare between big rivals Coles and Woolworths, Coles boss Ian McLeod has highlighted a thriving new trend in supply partnerships and product innovation being fostered by the big retailer.
He said there were "many great stories to tell" about how Coles was helping farmers and food manufacturers invest, innovate and "focus on bringing Australian families the quality and value".
Coles claims more than $4 billion of additional sales have been generated for the farm and food processing sectors as a result of it revamping its management and marketing ploys and ramping up efforts to draw more customers to its spruced up stores.
Mr McLeod, like most of his management team, was lured to Australia from a retailing career in Britain to reinvigorate the supermarket by streamlining its sourcing activities, cutting waste, and giving consumers better quality food at competitive prices.
Typical of Coles' strategies has been a switch to developing direct buying relationships with farmers for more than 90 per cent of its fresh produce, instead of buying 90pc of its supplies through capital city produce markets.
Mr McLeod said a program of weekly "super specials" was generating more demand for produce and helping farmers sell more.
The supermarket was backing its farmer partners by working with co-operatives and food companies to replace imports with locally grown dairy products, peanut butter, jam, canned beetroot and ready-to-eat meals.
To prove the company's "Australian first" sourcing policy and product innovation claims weren't just talk, Coles had published a booklet as part of its contribution to the National Food Plan showing how supply chain partnerships could build a more resilient and sustainable food sector.
Coles spokesman Jon Church said the publication, Backing Australian Farmers, was not an attempt to divert attention away from other food market issues in the news such as the challenges in the the milk industry.
He said the big retailer recognised it had big responsibilities to customers and those supplying its 740 stores, including dairy farmers who had gained from more fresh milk sales and Coles contracts with dairy food processors.
"We take our responsibility very seriously. This booklet helps demonstrate some of the partnerships we have with Australian farmers," he said.
"These partnerships are generating income for rural and regional communities and helping to support and grow farming businesses."
Mr Church said while it was not uncommon to hear a lot of gloom in the food industry, and criticism of supermarkets, the critics often had no relationship with or understanding of supermarkets.
"There's actually a lot of work done with us by farmers who are innovative in wanting to supply our stores and willing to back themselves by bringing on new production methods and growth initiatives," he said.
Among those partnerships noted in the 45-page booklet are NSW apple marketer and producer Batlow Co-operative and Western Australia's Craig Mostyn Group, which has annual sales of its Linley Valley Pork brand totalling more than $300 million from three piggeries.
WA strawberry grower Anthony Yewers at Bullsbrook said his family previously always dealt with produce agents, because he believed the supermarkets would be "bend you over a barrel".
"After supplying Coles directly for a while it became clear it was the market agents who had bent us over the barrel," he said.
Another WA supplier, Patane Produce at Myalup, cut its reliance on volatile vegetable export markets by half and doubled sales to Coles in just three years so that the supermarket now takes 20pc of production.
Product and packaging innovation developed with Coles helped Queensland-based Rugby Farm become one of Australia's largest growers of corn and green beans at properties from Stanthorpe in the south to Ayr in North Queensland.
In Victoria Coles has backed Australia's newest mushroom farm with a commitment to buy all the production from the new $10m Parwan Valley operation at Bacchus Marsh - 7000 kilograms of mushrooms a day.
According to managing director Mr McLeod the bottom line from Coles' "Down Down" food deflation drive has been higher product turnover in stores, which flows through to better sales for farmers and food manufacturers.