A surge in complaints to ABAC about craft beer packaging has reignited discussion over the role of the watchdog, and the Independent Brewers Association has now announced it is moving towards becoming a signatory of the code.
Jamie Cook, chair of the IBA, has told Brews News that the organisation has met with ABAC and is looking at developing an Independent Brewers Code of Conduct which will “encompass a broad range of areas including packaging, labelling, marketing and other engagement areas with consumers and the trade”.
He said it will cover relevant organisations and codes including ABAC, codes under the Food Standards Australia New Zealand, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and the Australian Association of National Advertisers. The IBA will then look to become an official signatory of the alcohol advertising code, encompassing all members under it.
The IBA however is not currently in a position to become a signatory at the moment as a collective organisation rather than an individual brewery.
“We will be signing up…but we have work to do first,” Cook said.
“I think the IBA need to be the educator and firstly raise the bar before becoming a signatory. Becoming a signatory means all members would need to be compliant otherwise we would no longer be able to be a signatory.
“In the current environment where the understanding of the code is low this would make us the policeman and it would be a big stick approach.
“We will be spending time on developing the understanding and desire to adhere to all regulatory codes to a point where we are comfortable that our role is of maintenance of a standard as opposed to policing it.”
While the IBA is neither a producer or a retailer and therefore not immediately eligible to become a signatory, the two organisations have been in contact as the number of complaints around the packaging and marketing activities of independent breweries has increased.
“Whilst some in the industry may see ABAC as the ‘fun police’ or as ‘a bunch of do-gooders’ I think that these sentiments are due to brewers still not totally understanding who ABAC is and the role they play in our industry,” Cook said, when asked about the issue two weeks ago.
The increased transparency and number of complaints to ABAC in the last 12 months had been noticeable, though whether “this is due to the number of ‘missteps’ by the industry, or is due to the virality of the media/social media coverage of each complaint is unknown”, he said.
“Most businesses, organisations and governments are currently being challenged by the rapidly changing and evolving society and we need to be working together to ensure that our industry isn’t out of step with consumer sentiment and perception,” he explained.
Cook said he believes that the IBA needs to “step up” to raise awareness and increase education around the responsibilities brewers have to the sustainability of their businesses and the broader industry.
“Once we have taken these steps [introducing the Independent Brewers Code of Conduct and later, signing up to ABAC], brewers won’t be able to claim a lack of awareness as an excuse for breaching the code.
“We will then begin enforcement around the conduct of brewers as members, and become a signatory to ABAC.”
In terms of penalties for non compliance to the proposed Independent Brewers Code of Conduct, the IBA has the ability to expel members from the association, and have threatened this in the past when a brewer has repeatedly misstepped through marketing activities that breached advertising standards.
Cook said it was “encouraging” to see companies that have had complaints upheld against them altering their packaging and marketing to fall in line with the code as soon as possible once they are notified they are in breach.
“There is strong evidence that ABAC and its processes are working – there has only been a few examples where companies have failed to act after being found of being in breach of the code in all of the years that it has operated,” he said.
Another reason for the move by the IBA to tighten up marketing obligations for the nation’s independent brewers is to adapt to changing industry demands and responsibilities, Cook explained.
Where once the brewing industry in Australia was dominated by the major brewers, the influx of independent brewers has necessitated the need for codified frameworks through which brewers can operate.
“For many years the brewing industry was largely made up of large sophisticated and mature businesses who developed good procedures for managing the creative process both internally and externally through agencies who had long associations with the brewers,” Cook explained.
“These businesses have invested in training and education around the various regulatory environments and codes across ABAC, FSANZ, ACCC and Ad Standards/AANA etc. They understand their responsibilities and work hard to ensure that don’t step outside the boundaries.
“The rise of small Independent brewers who are highly dynamic and are spontaneously creative, lack the sophistication and resources to balance that creativity with the rigour required to ensure that they operate in line with all of the requirements of running an alcohol business.”
He said the role of the IBA was, in part, to provide a stop-gap for these regulatory obligations and provide access to better training, furthering the understanding of areas which larger brewers have entire departments dedicated to.
“In working with ABAC we have identified that our collective efforts need to be focused on awareness and education, whist also being increasingly mindful of the changes in society we are experiencing,” he said.
“The IBA has a role to play in ensuring that our community of brewers have access to the knowledge and resources that allows them to survive and thrive.
“Whilst all of the resources and knowledge is available on line and relatively easy to access the IBA will pull it all together from ABAC, FSANZ, ACCC and Ad Standards/AANA etc, and have it one place as the Independent Brewers Code of Conduct.
“Adhering to the code will be the very least that our members can do to maintain the social licence that we all have to operate our businesses,” Cook finished.