Producers across the country are being forced to find new ways to send their artisan goods to customers after a decision by Australia Post to no longer deliver perishable food.
The taxpayer-owned company has informed producers of foods such as butter, cheese, truffles, smallgoods and native bush ingredients that Australia Post will no longer deliver their perishable products from June 30.
Food businesses, especially those in remote and regional areas across the nation, have been left without alternate delivery methods.
"This is going to ruin people," says Pierre Issa from Sydney-based boutique butter producer Pepe Saya, which supplies to hundreds of Australian retailers and restaurants.
"We lost a lot of our normal business during the outbreak of the pandemic and had to go big-time into home delivery."
The Pepe Saya team pivoted to direct-to-consumer online sales during COVID, packing cultured butter into polystyrene boxes layered with special wrapping and frozen gel packs that keep the product under four degrees for up to 48 hours.
These were delivered using Express Post to areas outside of metropolitan Sydney and Melbourne which are not commercially viable to be serviced by contract cold delivery couriers.
Two weeks ago, Issa received a letter from Australia Post stating the company had made "the difficult decision" to cease transportation of perishable food items across all its StarTrack services, including Road Express, Premium, Next Flight and Courier.
Australia Post will also no longer accept perishable food items for delivery, the letter stated, defining perishable items to include any product requiring temperature control during transportation, such as meat, fish, poultry, eggs, dairy products, fruit and vegetables, and frozen meals.
In a statement provided to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, Australia Post said the reason for the abrupt halt was "due to the complex food safety requirements differing across states and territories.
"Australia Post will discontinue the carriage of certain foods destined for consumption across the delivery network from June 30, 2021 for a small number of customers.
Australia Post will continue to work closely with customers to determine alternate products and suppliers, a spokesperson for the company said.
Milawa Cheese Company chief executive Ceridwen Brown has not been contacted directly by Australia Post and heard about the decision from fellow Victorian cheesemakers.
"If they're going to withdraw the service, we need to know the timeline," says Brown. "Finding another [delivery] partner will take time, and we need to build our online sales volume so that it's commercially viable."
Issa feels the decision was made hastily and without consultation. "We had been working with Australia Post for almost a decade," he says. "Because of COVID, we had upped our deliveries to almost 400 packages a week, with no quality issues. Now we have to pivot again."
The edict will have a big effect on farmers and producers in rural areas where alternative couriers are costly or non-existent.
In far north Queensland, organic grower Mark Toohey sends small packages of avocados and bananas to 1700 homes around Australia. He says Australia Post's perishable food delivery ban will mean his business is "decimated".
Farming lobby group AgForce Queensland is now urging its members to sign an online petition for the government postman to review its decision.
At Nhill, near Victoria's border with South Australia, farmer Matthew Koop pioneered the propagation, harvest and marketing of native foods such as quandong, muntries (kunzea berries) and bush limes. He has been delivering with Australia Post for two decades.
"While I use refrigerated trucks for larger deliveries I use Express Post to supply top restaurants," says Koop. "Chefs drive food trends in Australia. Without access to them, innovative farmers will lose a very important marketing tool.
"There are so many barriers to entry for experimental and innovative food growers. This decision will create a new barrier at a time when we need more support."
Australia Post's decision will also affect its own Farmhouse Direct online store which solicits producers to list their cheese, herbs, baked goods and other foods on a virtual marketplace for direct-to-consumer delivery.
"The Farmhouse Direct website Australia Post operates will continue, however some producers selling through that website may be impacted by this change," said a spokesperson for the company.
Tasmanian cheesemakers, chocolatiers and truffle growers will also be heavily affected, having used Australia Post for decades to grow their businesses and reach mainland consumers.
"This is quite dramatic for us," says award-winning cheesemaker Nick Haddow from Bruny Island Cheese Company. "Sixty per cent of our sales will be affected. Over the years, working with Australia Post, our company has grown and expanded.
"From what I gather, this is a legal response to Australia Post exploring the possibilities of creating a cold chain delivery network only to find their existing delivery system may not comply with various state and territory food safety regulations.
"They have handled and communicated it really badly. But it was not malicious, and from conversations I have had with them, they are now working to find a way through it."
Milawa Cheese's Ceridwen Brown says it has been exciting to send more cheese through the post so that it can get to people when it's ripe and ready to eat.
"It translates to a better eating experience," she says. But finding a new distributor at short notice is a lot of pressure for Brown and her team. "After 2020, this is the last thing we need."