Opinion: Consumer watchdog Choice casts a critical eye over beef supply chain

Jon Condon, 08/02/2013


Discussion over the merits or otherwise of lotfeeding, traceability through the production chain and better understanding beef labelling are among topics discussed in a beef industry snapshot published this week by the popular consumer watchdog, Choice.

While some of the points raised in the comprehensive report will appear ill-infoirmed, off-target and simplistic to industry stakeholders, the general thrust of the article is positive, with information designed to be helpful to the average consumer in beef purchase decision-making.    

The report attempts to take readers on a ‘paddock to plate’ journey from property of origin to feedlot, processing plant and on to the retail shelf in packaged form.

“When it comes to the steak on your dinner table, there's more than one path it may have taken from the paddock,” Choice says.

One passage unfairly and superficially polarises beef is either produced under a ‘sustainable’ model, or via the ‘industrial production model.’

“The market has developed two main ways of producing meat to satisfy consumer demands,” the report says.

“Under the sustainable path, central themes among farmers are animal treatment, traceability/provenance, and soil health, as is the health value of the meat. Rotational grazing …  is popular as it gives the grass an opportunity to regrow and minimises compaction of soil. However, this model is resource intensive, and it can result in more expensive meat for consumers,” Choice says.

“The industrial production model is how most beef finds its way to the supermarket shelves. Here, making a profit tends to takes precedence over soil health, provenance and in some cases even quality of the meat,” it claims.

“Cows raised this way generally spend their early months or years on a farm, before moving to a feedlot to be fattened on a high-protein grain diet. Some are critical of the nutritional density (the protein content and number of other nutrients present) of beef produced under industrial practices,” the report says.

Choice suggests one of the reasons for the development of feedlots was that “most cattle are sold by the kilogram rather than by quality.”

The Australian Lot Feeders Association’s Dougal Gordon is quoted as saying consumer demand for grainfed beef had also encouraged feedlot finishing of cattle. Grainfed beef has a softer texture and richer flavour than pasture-fed beef.

Mr Gordon pointed out that 70-80pc of all cattle produced for Australia’s two major supermarkets, Coles and Woolworths, spend two to three months in a feedlot before being taken to the abattoir.

Choice also sought comment from Glenys Oogjes, executive director of animal protection organisation Animals Australia, who said that while the feedlot sector was well regulated, there were some ‘problems with the current standard.’

“There is a problem inherent in taking a grazing animal out of a paddock and putting it on a high-protein grain diet in a pen. From a behavioural and welfare point of view, we are concerned,” she said.

‘Inadequate’ shelter for animals in feedlots was also a concern, Choice suggested.

“Some do offer shade, according to Mr Gordon, but it is not a legal requirement. The RSPCA argues that even cattle breeds adapted to hotter climates naturally seek shade, and feedlots should provide shade without compromising the ability to dry out the pens following wet weather. ALFA says about 60pc of cattle in all feedlots currently have access to shade, with the remainder mostly located in southern and alpine areas.”

Quizzed about the use of growth promotants, Choice quoted Dougal Gordon as saying that animals that had been treated with HGPs – which can improve growth rates by 15-30pc – weren’t inferior to those that haven’t – although it did reduce marbling, which contributes to flavour, it suggested.

“Accredited feedlots are independently audited on an annual basis for animal welfare, environmental and food safety issues. However, visits are announced and results are not publically available,” Choice told readers.

Regulatory scrutiny

Further along the supply chain, Choice said the increasing centralisation of abattoirs in Australia meant more cattle are facing lengthy journeys.

“The Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals specifies mature, fit cattle may be transported for 36 hours without water. This can be extended to 48 hours if animals aren’t showing signs of fatigue and weather is favourable. Despite this, some research has found cattle to be considerably dehydrated and noticeably tired after 24 hours of transportation,” the report stated.

It also contains lengthy discussion about abattoir licensing, regulation and audit processes, highlighting that while export abattoirs require a DAFF Biosecurity veterinarian to be on site during the slaughter process, domestic meat abattoirs need only employ an internal animal welfare officer.

“Although the Australian Meat Industry Council, the peak representative body of meat processors and retailers, guarantees best practice welfare standards in all abattoirs, Animals Australia campaign director Lyn White says the lack of independent oversight in domestic abattoirs leaves farm animals ‘incredibly vulnerable’,” the report said.

“While the regulatory mechanisms vary in export and domestic abattoirs, little information is available to consumers about audit results of the abattoirs our meat comes from. Name-and-shame registers exist in some states, and the NSW Food Authority recently uncovered animal welfare breaches at all 10 domestic slaughterhouses in that state. Despite this, there’s no way of knowing which meat-processing facility the steak you buy at the supermarket has come from,” Choice claimed.

The National Livestock Identification System was credited with ensuring all beef produced for consumption in Australia can be traced from property of birth to slaughter for the purposes of biosecurity, meat safety and product integrity. However, once the animal is broken down and packaged for sale on the supermarket shelf, this flow of information stops and in most cases is not passed onto the consumer, Choice said.

“Consumers aren’t too worried about which farm [the cow comes from] – they just want confidence that Coles knows where it came from,” Coles' general manager of meat, Allister Watson, is quoted as saying.

Some Coles premium steaks do include provenance, though processing details aren’t on the packaging. Provenance is also not on the packaging for most beef sold at Woolworths. And while Aldi claims every piece of beef it sells is traceable, the information is not available at the point of sale.

Consumers want to be better informed

With steaks on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus increasingly coming from beef farmed in a variety of ways, Choice says consumers want to be better informed about what they are buying.

In a recent survey, the consumer watchdog found 83pc of respondents said that when choosing to buy food, it was important to know whether it was ‘ethically’ produced. An even greater 91pc said there was not enough packaging information about ethical production.

“Consumers pay a premium for good quality steak but they may not understand what the different production methods are,” Choice food policy advisor Angela McDougall said.

"When people order a grainfed steak, they may not realise that this means cattle are in a feedlot for 60 or 70 days on a protein-rich diet with the primary objective of fast weight gain.”

“Understanding the meaning of different steak descriptions can help shoppers decide what’s important to them – for some it’s the ethical concerns like animal welfare and sustainability, while for others it might come down to value for money or taste,” she said.

The article also provided a guide to ‘beef descriptive terms’ to help consumers get a better understanding about the source of their steak.

In offering explanations behind various descriptors for beef products seen on retail shelves, the report provides some fairly standard industry definitions for terms like grassfed and pasture fed, free-range, grainfed and Organic.

It did get stuck, though, on other terms, incorrectly referring to ‘hormone free’ beef (all beef contains hormones), and describing the process inaccurately as “Most cattle in the feedlot are injected with slow-release HGPs to speed up fattening before sale.”

Whether the report enhances the knowledge of the typical beef consumer is debatable, as it tends to dwell on a list of tired old cliches about industry practises like lotfeeding and drifts off into statistically insignificant industry practises like biodynamics.



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