Holding Sydney to Ransom


Revelations last week at the Cole Inquiry that the Australian Wheatgrass Board [AW(g)B] continues to offer bribes, sent shockwaves through the Canberra establishment. Several senior bureaucrats have reportedly taken extended stress leave and at least two Ministers are tonight considering offers to become cricket commentators.

Despite this, the revelations came as no surprise to many living in Sydney’s affluent Eastern Suburbs. Since shop owners went public last Thursday, a number of stores have declared they have been paid off to sell wheatgrass, which many described as ‘an inferior product.’ In a widening of the scandal, CSIRO tests tabled in parliament show that wheatgrass samples from health food stores and ‘organic cafes’ contain unacceptably high levels of Stenotaphrum secundatum commonly known as buffalo grass.

Macro Foods, a popular café and supermarket at Bondi Junction has the highest turnover of wheatgrass shots in Sydney. One of its owners, Ted Myers, says they have found it ‘extremely difficult to keep prices down. But then, we mainly sell organic products and none of our customers seems to blink when we double prices overnight. Maybe charging $4.20 for a small shot in a plastic cup is excessive. It’s almost as expensive as our coffee.’

What was once considered a feel-good industry made up of flakey New Age entrepreneurs in combi-vans, is now a dangerous business of shady deals, kickbacks and standover tactics. Prior to regulation, the Sydney wheatgrass market was principally a backyard operation. But an inquiry by the Productivity Commission in 2001 resulted in supply and distribution of wheatgrass being concentrated in the hands of one principal operator: AW(g)B. Since then, high prices and plummeting standards have dogged the industry.

After flooding the market with wheatgrass, experts suggest growers are now supplementing to keep up with demand. The CSIRO report confirms the suspicion that buffalo grass and even couch grass (Agropyron repens) is being added to stocks.

Len Miexner from the beachside suburb of Tamarama has been downing wheatgrass shots every day for the past seven years. He says, ‘Back in 1998, I was a spirulina-man, but I decided I needed a change.’

A small man with what appears to be a year-round tan, Miexner says he was hooked on wheatgrass almost immediately. ‘I loved it,’ he said. But things have been getting difficult for Miexner in recent months. ‘The price hike was hard to take, but I was more pissed off when the taste changed. At first it was like I was drinking fermented moss, but now it’s unbearable. A bag of oranges won’t get the taste out of my mouth.’ Miexner went on, ‘Believe me, I know buffalo grass when I drink it.’

Some analysts fear the recent revelations that Australian wheatgrass was being sold to Saddam Hussein, Robert Mugabe and Kim Jong Il will be a turn-off for consumers, but a number of outlets contacted by New Matilda declared business was brisk. It seems that Australia’s love affair with wheatgrass is set to last.

In fact, if one Seattle-based mega-company has its way, wheatgrass stocks are about to skyrocket. After limited trials throughout the summer, Starbucks is tipped to launch its range of coffeegrass shots in June, with a multi-million dollar marketing campaign featuring sports celebrities, children’s picture book authors and Channel Nine CEO Eddie Maguire. The AW(g)B has been actively lobbying Starbucks to ensure that only Australian wheatgrass is used.

Either way, this story is far from over. The recent widening of the Cole Inquiry’s terms of reference is expected to expose a widening web of corruption in the wheatgrass industry. Tabloid journalists are licking their licks at the thought of headlines like ‘Wheatgrass for weapons’ and ‘Wheatgrass supplements dictator’s thirst for guns.’

About the Author
Gerald Hendason
runs a bike shop in Kogarah

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.