The grainfed beef sector has taken consumer watchdog Choice to task over a long list of ‘inaccuracies and ill-informed subjective judgements’ published in its recent appraisal of the Australian beef market.
While the Choice magazine and website has made its name in providing helpful product comparisons in fields as diverse as washing-up liquid, fridges and infant car seats, the recent article on beef highlights the flaws in trying to provide meaningful feedback to consumers on a product as diverse as beef – particularly when the topic is poorly understood, researched and presented.
Making the situation worse is the fact that that Choice is highly trusted among its 160,000 subscribers Australia wide as a fair, impartial and well-informed source of product information.
Published under the unfortunately chosen title, “Steaking out the truth,” last week’s article (read Beef Central’s original report here) fell well short of its stated goal, by any measure.
The grainfed sector, particularly, comes in for some rough stick, being characterised as a form of unsustainable factory farming, where profit goals apparently over-ride beef eating quality and any desire to treat animals humanely, chemicals are used with little discretion. In contrast, most other beef, apparently, is run under idealistic principles like biodynamics.
In a detailed response to the publishers of Choice, ALFA chief executive officer Dougal Gordon describes the article as “unfortunately ill-informed, subjective, littered with inaccuracies and unrepresentative of the cattle feedlot industry.”
“ALFA only seeks that stakeholders recognise that grass and grainfed beef are complementary, have different attributes and offer consumers choice,” he said. “One is not necessarily superior to the other.”
“Unfortunately it seems that this article was hastily written, instead of being a well-researched, balanced and reasoned appraisal of the facts. No attempt has been made to explain the positives of the cattle feedlot production system nor the negatives of the grass fed production system”
HGP role misrepresented
Mr Gordon picked apart some of the flawed messages contained in the article, item by item.
In just one example, he rejected the article’s implication that HGPs are used only in the feedlot sector, and that their use represents any health risk.
“Elementary research would have determined that HGPs are used in both grass and grainfed beef production. In fact twice as many doses are actually sold into the grassfed sector in Australia as the grainfed sector each year,” he pointed out.
“The article also does little to provide the other side of the HGP story and instead perpetuates the unfounded view that HGPs are inherently dangerous or risky.”
“Notably, the level of hormones in beef derived from HGP-treated cattle is significantly less than the natural level of hormones found in many other products consumed every day by the general public. For instance a serving of beer contains seven times the level of hormones as a serving of HGP-treated beef – a serving of peas 179 times, and ice cream 273 times.”
Contrary to the terminology used in the article, there was no such thing as ‘hormone free’ beef, Mr Gordon advised Choice.
“All beef contains hormones, regardless of whether or not it is treated with HGPs. That is why Coles advertises its beef as containing ‘No added hormones’. HGPs also result in increased leanness in animals, not increased fatness.”
He also noted that the EU ban on HGPs had been proven by the WTO to not be based on any scientifically valid arguments.
The ‘provenance’ of beef produced in feedlots, as opposed to grassfed production systems, was also questioned in the article.
“From a provenance perspective, the feedlot sector in fact has superior identification systems to those used broadly in the grassfed sector, and so the ability to provide provenance information is higher,” Mr Gordon argues.
“The fact that retailers choose not to provide this information to their customers should not be used as a criticism of the feedlot sector.”
“Regarding beef eating quality, ALFA instigated the eating quality program, Meat Standards Australia, because our sector is more consistently able to deliver high eating quality outcomes due to the elimination of climatic variations upon pasture quality.”
Accreditation, audit under scrutiny
Elsewhere, the article focusses on the feedlot accreditation program casting doubt over the credibility of the process, saying audit visits are ‘pre-announced’, and results are not publically available.
“This misleadingly provides the impression that the performance of the feedlot sector is not only less than transparent, but questionable,” Mr Gordon said.
“ALFA, in contrast, spends an inordinate amount of time developing and improving industry systems, training and standards whilst demonstrating sector transparency. We regularly meet with the RSPCA, environment departments and state/federal food safety bodies and they are involved in the review of our standards.”
“The industry quality assurance program is also independently owned and managed from the sector, with audit results provided to Government. None of this is captured in the article,” he said.
ALFA was a firm supporter of the rights of consumers to make informed purchase decisions, and it was for this reason that it had instigated an education program to correct the many misconceptions surrounding the cattle feedlot sector, Mr Gordon said.
Mr Gordon said ALFA was not endeavouring to denigrate the grass fed beef sector, but to provide balance where none existed and argument to vigorously defend the cattle feedlot sector in the face of such uninformed commentary.
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