UPDATE 2.45pm: Coles says it remains committed to offering fresh Australian produce despite paying six fines totalling $61,200 for misrepresenting the country of origin on products.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission took action following a complaint that Coles had displayed some imported navel oranges and kiwi fruit underneath price boards reading "Helping Australia Grow" with the triangular "Australian Grown" symbol.
The ACCC said the infringement involved five stores across WA, Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT between March and May.
The commission said it had surveyed a number of Coles stores and found that the signage was also being used in other stores to advertise imported asparagus and almonds.
The ACCC alleges that this signage gave the overall impression that the imported produce was Australian grown, when it was not.
Coles told the ACCC that the mistake arose because of the relocation of stock within stores without updating the promotional imagery on the price boards.
The retailer said in a statement that it remained committed to its ‘Helping Australia Grow’ and ‘96 per cent Australian fresh produce” advertising statements despite the infringement notices.
"Coles does not believe that it has contravened any law but has paid the ACCC fines as a matter of practical expediency to avoid a lengthy and costly legal action in defending our position," the company said in a statement.
The ACCC conceded the overseas country of origin was correctly identified either by stickers on the produce itself, on its packaging or under the display bin.
However it considered that the relatively small sized stickers or statements were not sufficient to correct the overwhelming impression of the "Helping Australia Grow" campaign imagery that was associated with the sale of the product.
ACCC chairman Rod Sims said consumers should be able to rely on the accuracy of claims about food, particularly when they were prepared to pay a premium for products made in Australia.
"Misleading country of origin claims can also have a significant impact on the competitive process and hurt the local economy," he said.
"While this does not appear to be a case of widespread or systemic conduct, 'Helping Australia Grow' is a significant national campaign driven hard by Coles to advertise its fresh produce.
"This is a lesson to all retailers that they need to take care when undertaking significant advertising campaigns to ensure consumers are not misled by those campaigns."
The payment of infringement notice penalties is not an admission of a contravention of the Competition and Consumer Act 2010.
The ACCC can issue an infringement notice where it has reasonable grounds to believe a trader has contravened certain consumer protection laws.