THE AusMeat Language and Standards Committee appears to be drawing closer to finalising a set of standard definitions for terms like ‘grassfed’, and ‘grain-assisted’ for use within the industry language.
But as is often the case with such issues, it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
While there is a clearly-defined segment in the Australian beef industry for ‘grainfed’ cattle, meeting a list of important conventions and backed by third-party audit, and a rapidly emerging beef segment for product making ‘grassfed/natural’ claims, there’s also a vast population of cattle supply in Australia that fall somewhere in between.
How to manage and describe those cattle in terms of industry language is the current challenge.
Complicating matters further has been recent events, including an episode where beef from cattle that were known to have received grain-based paddock supplement was entered into, and won, a ‘grassfed’ division in a prominent branded beef competition. That’s only added fuel to the fire in debate that is now emerging over such standards and terminologies.
The grain-assisted issue has been discussed through industry channels widely in recent times, and it appears that opinions are sharply divided about defining a raising claim around grain assisted production.
Understandably lotfeeders on one hand, are opposed to such a move, while the grassfed sector, represented by Cattle Council of Australia, has offered tacit support.
Processors, judging by comments extracted from several key players we spoke to earlier, are divided in their views towards the need for such a tool. Some were receptive, while others were concerned about undermining grainfed status – environmentally, and product quality wise.
Chairman of the AusMeat language and standards committee, Allan Bloxsom, said the way the issue was being addressed currently, it was focusing on animal raising claims – not on the development of a grain-assisted AusMeat cipher.
“The industry language and standards committee is trying to address what to do with that ‘middle ground’ of product – everything that is not currently covered by legislation, being Grainfed (GF, GFYG), through to a new Grassfed standard, which will be announced very soon,” he said.
Some stakeholders may have assumed that a grassfed standard was already in place, but the current program relates only to the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) program.
“A more general grassfed/pasturefed standard is imminent – it will be launched fairly soon,” Mr Bloxsom said.
The language and standards committee was hopeful of having the raising claims, for both grassfed and grain-assisted, ready for launch by December, he told Beef Central.
Mr Bloxsom said it was still too early to define what industry (through peak council participation on the language and standards committee) would want to do with that ‘middle ground’ grain assist type product.
“But there’s certainly a lot of product from both ends that currently floats around in the ether. There is a fairly strongly held view around the language and standards group table, that a raising claim is a means of adding value to that ‘middle ground’ product,” he said.
“If you can call it something, and hold your hand on your heart and back it up with a system that is true-to label, there is a group that believes that there is a certain amount of value yet to be extracted from that ‘middle ground’ (grain assisted beef).”
Mr Bloxsom pointed out that the discussion surrounding raising claims only related to beef in export programs.
“We have no jurisdiction in the domestic trade. Currently an owner can call a piece of domestic beef whatever they want. But from various sides of the table, there is a desire to have both export and domestic trades covered under such raising claims.”
Lotfeeder’s broadside over damage that ‘grain-assist’ might bring
Attending a recent AusMeat language and standards committee meeting in an ‘observer’ status, Darling Downs lotfeeder Kev Roberts objected vigorously to the potential development of either ciphers or standards around the use of terms like ‘grain assisted’ or ‘grain-supplemented.’
Mr Roberts, a former president of the Australian Lot Feeders Association, and a chief architect of ALFA’s much admired National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme, tore into the notion that the industry might consider adopting such formal terminologies to describe cattle simply given ‘access’ to grain.
“We fought bloody hard to get ‘Grainfed’ into the export meat orders, and carrying its own cipher,” Mr Roberts said. “The whole grainfed system is underpinned by rigorous standards and audits.”
Mr Roberts sees any development of a ‘grain assisted’ tag as muddying the waters for true grainfed beef, which carries high standards of integrity under NFAS for time spent on feed, percent of grain in feed rations, energy concentration in rations, and other parameters. The whole grainfed system was also heavily regulated in terms of environmental and animal welfare responsibility.
“My fear, under any ‘grain assisted’ tag is, How much grain? How long spent on grain? It’s going to be impossible to police, and could in fact damage the very solid reputation that true Australian grainfed beef has in the marketplace,” he said.
The supporters of the ‘grain assist’ proposal wanted to be able to include the word, ‘grain’, because they saw it as being of benefit to them in their marketing, Mr Roberts said.
“There were people present at the AusMeat meeting who are determined to protect the reputation of their premium ‘grassfed’ (PCAS) product, so why should grainfed producers be any different?”
He said the grainfed sector’s hard earned reputation risked being damaged if there were environmental or other issues arising out of unregulated ‘grain assist’ programs.
A spokesman who attended the meeting as a representative of the Australian Lot Feeders Association said ALFA supported ‘truth in labelling’ as critically important, but it did not support the development of a raising claim for terms like ‘grain assisted.’
He said ALFA supported the current industry position around supplementary feeding statements, as detailed in the AusMeat language rules. The specific passage he referred to relates to supplementary feeding statements, in the labelling section, which says:
“Supplementary feeding statements are confusing, subjective and can be misleading as to the characteristics or implied product standards they associate with the product, to which they are labelled.”
“Common examples of supplementary feeding statements included Lot Fed, Grain Assisted, Grain Supplemented, Grain Enhanced, Long-Fed or Long Grain Fed, Short Fed or Short Grain Fed.”
“Industry has determined that these statements must not be used to describe products, regardless of whether they are used as a stand-alone statement or a personalised claim associated with a company brand.”
“The issue surrounding a raising claim around grain-assisted or grain-enhanced is, what’s involved?” the ALFA boardmember said.
“How much grain is fed, of what energy level, for how long? There are a lot of unknowns that have to be worked through by the industry committee.”
He said lotfeeders wanted to work through the issues with the rest of the industry, but he thought it would take ‘more time’ to reach a resolution.
CCA sees opportunity
Cattle Council of Australia’s Jed Matz said CCA had been working for five years to get ‘grassfed’ defined in the AusMeat language, and that agreement was now more or less complete.
“What we need to do now is try to define the product that ‘falls between’ grassfed and grainfed. That’s what we’re working on at the moment. Some people have talked about a cipher for grain-assist, but at this stage the focus has been on definitions and raising claims,” he said.
“It’s all about truth in labelling. There are people ringing AusMeat, asking about raising claims for grain assisted product, and we need to give it to them.”
Mr Matz said CCA did not believe that a grain-assist segment would damage the interests of the grainfed sector. “There’s a premium for grainfed product, and a premium for certified grassfed product – but I don’t see anyone at the moment paying any premium for grain-assisted beef.
“But the consumer is sophisticated enough to make those distinctions. At the end of the day, the more we can differentiate our beef products, the more value we can build for the whole beef category.”
Mr Matz said there was clear evidence that a lot of slaughter cattle received a ‘little bit’ of grain during the production cycle, so potentially, it could be a quite large segment of overall beef supply. “But in a certified system, probably not a lot of volume will be seen,” he said.
“But the more producers using certified programs to underpin their brands can only be a good thing.”
“If someone is making a raising claim like grain-assisted, it’s important that the consumer can trust that that is being underpinned, with systems in place to make sure there is integrity behind the raising claims.”
‘Truth in labelling’ used as defence
Some of the supporters for a grain-assisted raising claim model suggest that the need for truth in labelling is a strong motivator for adoption of such a system.
A large domestic processor, who asked not to be named, said he supported the development of a ‘grain assist’ standard, because to the consumer, ‘truth in labelling’ was becoming more and more important.
“The consumer has a right to know whether a product has spent its entire life on grass; has been fed a grain program, or something in between,” he said. “We’re forgetting about the consumer in this.”
He said such trade-marks were already being registered for such raising claims. AA Co’s 1824 brand, for example, uses the term, ‘raised on grass, finished on grain,” as part of its brand message.
“I think in that case, they’re telling the consumer exactly what they’re doing. Nothing wrong with that, and to me it makes good sense.”