Trade

Grassfed terminology comes under fire for ‘mis-description’

Jon Condon, 21/08/2015

A WAR of words is erupting over definitions of ‘grassfed’ beef used in the Australian domestic market.

At one end of the scale are grassfed brand programs backed by third-party independently audited QA systems, while at the other are supply chains that quite legitimately, under current industry standards and conventions, identify their product as grassfed, while also providing cattle with access to supplementary grain.

In an article published yesterday (more details below), the Sydney Morning Herald claimed Aldi Supermarket shoppers are being charged 30 percent more for prize-winning ‘grassfed’ beef cuts, but suggested the claim was potentially misleading and the medals should never have been awarded.

The heightened sensitivity over grassfed terminology has only really emerged over the past 18 months, as ‘grassfed’ beef has successfully carved-out a niche as a premium product, for which consumers are clearly prepared to pay a higher price.

There’s no shortage of evidence of considerable premiums being paid for product carrying legitimate grassfed identity. Woolworths this week has Macro Grassfed rump (medallions) at $25.99/kg, while its regular everyday MSA rump is just $16.99/kg. Macro grassfed premium mince is $16.99/kg, with everyday premium beef mince $12.49/kg.

That price trend has clearly elevated the interest in use of the term ‘grassfed’ as a desirable descriptor in retail and food service segments.

The current industry sensitivity over the use of ‘grassfed’ largely stems from the fact that under current broad industry standards, the term is fundamentally a default for any beef product, whatsoever, that does not align with ‘Grainfed’ cipher requirements.

Essentially, under current AusMeat guidelines, ‘grassfed’ can be legitimately used to describe anything from Brahman scrub bulls caught in Cape York peninsula, to MSA Angus yearling steer grown its entire life on oats near Walcha.

Taking exception to that are dedicated grassfed programs like the industry-owned Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System, and other dedicated third party audited grassfed programs like JBS Great Southern, CAAB’s Angus Pure, and numerous others. They maintain that ‘grassfed’ means ‘never-ever’ in terms of access to grain or grain-based supplements.

But the fact is that a large portion of beef produced in Australia, that can currently legitimately use a ‘grassfed’ identity, is given access to grain as a production tool, through supplementation or paddock-based finishing systems.

At the other end, lotfeeders object to any reference to ‘grain’ in describing such production systems, for fear of compromising their valuable ‘Grainfed’ industry cipher.

 

Are there grounds for an additional industry descriptor for ‘grain supplemented’?

The problem with the current terminology issue was illustrated in this recent article on Beef Central, showcasing the magnificent paddock-based grassfed production system developed by Ceres Agriculture in northern NSW, which also relies on grain-based supplementation using self-feeders in the paddock. Ceres turns over more than 80,000 head of cattle in a typical year, making it one of the biggest beef producers in the state.

gcgd_mayfield_poster-01

Bindaree Beef’s Mayfield beef brand, supplied from Ceres Ag’s ‘paddock-based feedlot’ model makes clear references to grassfed

There is no denying the quality of the product being delivered under Ceres Ag’s systems, which is identified in Aldi Supermarkets under its Highland Park grassfed brand, and under Bindaree Beef’s Mayfield brand as ‘grassfed.’

In Ceres’s case, principal Mark Mason has been pushing for years through various industry channels for the formation of a third industry standard, for such cattle.

In a discussion with Beef Central, he displays clear frustration at the lack of progress.

“Ceres has been trying for years to do the right thing, but the industry has not allowed it,” a source close to the project told Beef Central.

For years terms like ‘grain assisted’ and ‘grain enhanced’ have been used as descriptors in saleyards industry parlance. A range of other possible terms have been floated: “Free-range grainfed” being just one. To our knowledge, however, such terms have never been seen at wholesale or retail meat trade level – only for livestock.

But one of the real challenges may be coming up with a terminology that everybody is happy with, from legitimate grainfeeders, to certified ‘nil grain’ grassfeeders.

“The reason why we give cattle in grass paddocks access to grain is to deliver consistent production, 365 days a year,” Ceres’s Mark Mason said.

“Our offshore customers want us to use a descriptor that includes the word, ‘grain’, but we can’t use that either,” he said.

“At the end of the day, we feel product like ours has the benefits of both systems – grain and grass. We developed this system in the 2000s, because of the impact of drought – not to try to deceive anybody.”

“But I’m finding it difficult to get any straight answers from anyone in terms of trying to develop a cipher of industry descriptor that reflects the sort of product we – and large numbers of other Australian cattle producers – generate.”

“We’ve virtually given up on getting some sort of industry standard or recognition – hence why we have now gone out and are developing our own standard with Aldi. We’d like AusMeat to audit the process.”

Mr Mason said he had not put in a submission for the current AusMeat industry language review, but had spoken to everybody from “Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce down.”

“We’re certainly not anti lotfeeding cattle – we’ve built a 5000-head feedlot ourselves – and we are certainly not anti grassfed. Whatever system can produce consistent high quality beef is what it’s about. We think there’s a place for all three production systems, and the industry should recognise that.”

 

SMH article raises questions over grassfed claims

In yesterday’s article published by the Sydney Morning Herald, it claims Aldi shoppers are being charged 30 percent more for prize-winning “grassfed” beef cuts, but suggests the claim is potentially misleading and the medals should never have been awarded.

The fast-growing supermarket chain had admitted that its Highland Park-branded grassfed beef products were from cattle given supplementary feed with grain, the SMH claimed.

Under local and international best practice standards, grassfed cattle must never consume grain or grain by-products. Further, they can only graze on cereal crops at the pre-grain stage.

While Aldi’s products are not grass-fed-certified under the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System, it has entered representative cuts into branded beef competitions, including the prestigious Sydney and Brisbane Royal Shows, that clearly stipulate cattle described as grassfed must never have eat grain, the SMH suggested.

Grassfed cattle farmer Ian McCamley, from Central Queensland, said Aldi’s claim had the potential to mislead customers and hurt genuine grassfed producers. He is one of 290 Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System-certified producers in Australia.

“If it makes the grassfed claim, the cattle should never be fed grain. If they have been, I’m dead against that. It’s not fair on the consumer,” he said.

“Products making grassfed claims need to be genuine and back with a system of integrity. If not then it just tarnishes the grassfed claim.”

Mr McCamley said Aldi’s questionable grassfed production methods meant it could offer cuts at a lower price, disadvantaging other producers and retailers.

Aldi’s porterhouse grassfed is $25.99 a kilogram, 30 percent more than its grainfed equivalent. Coles’ porterhouse grassfed is $34 a kilogram.

Aldi has adorned the packaging of its Highland Park grassfed porterhouse, scotch fillet and eye fillet with show medal logos from the Sydney Royal and Royal Queensland Food and Wine Show. The logos can significantly boost sales and revenue.

Tim Slack-Smith, Sydney Royal’s chief steward for the branded beef competition, told the SMH that a grassfed producer could submit a cut only if the cattle had been fed 100 percent on grass.

“Should an entry be found to have grainfed in a grass class, then they would be penalised … if it was to go through all the way and receive an award and then found to not be to schedule, then the exhibitor would be stripped of their award,” he said.

The Royal Queensland show’s guidelines state the entry must adhere to PCAS principles. Aldi signed a statutory declaration stating it was obeying the guidelines, the SMH suggested.

Beef cattle committee chairman for Brisbane’s Royal National Association, Gary Noller, said if an exhibitor intentionally made a false statement, there could be legal ramifications and consequences under the RNA by-laws.

“If a written complaint is made, then it will be dealt with in accordance with the RNA by-laws,” he said.

The SMH article said Aldi had told customers on Facebook that grassfed cattle could be given grain to ensure their welfare when weather conditions are bad.

“Aldi is fully compliant with all current legal requirements for food labelling,” a spokesman said.

“‘Grassfed’ does not imply that animals are 100 per cent grassfed with no grains at all in the diet. As we have publicly shared, we allow grain supplements when weather necessitates, for the animal’s welfare.”

Mr McCamley, a fifth generation farmer, said PCAS was developed because producers felt current legal requirements for beef labelling were too lax.

“Customers are paying a premium for grassfed. We need to give them that guarantee. That’s why they should look out for products with the PCAS logo, meaning its underpinned by a robust system.”

Consumer advocacy group Choice said there is a plethora of confusing claims on beef packaging, such as pasture-fed, bio-dynamic, free-range, and organic.

“These claims tend to carry a premium price tag, so you want to make sure they’re worth the extra money,” said Choice’s Tom Godfrey.

 

  • Beef Central has made several unsuccessful attempts to discuss the grassfed terminology issue and the potential for market mis-use with Cattle Council of Australia over the past 12 months.
  • Read the full SMH article here. 

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Comments

  1. John Bruce, 25/08/2015

    ” So beef will never be just ‘grassfed'” – That is just not true, Tasmanian produced grassfed is finished on pasture species, without any of the scrub species described.
    Producers intensively managing pastures and using grazing management techniques to ensure they remain highly productive for the long term should be allowed to take the rewards for their efforts, and advertise the difference. Stock are grazing grain crops are certainly not being finished on pasture. If cattle spend any time in a feedlot they must be identified as such. Grainfed has had a price advantage for years, and now consumers have a preference for pasture fed beef a change of marketing strategy might be required, just as grassfed beef has achieved.

  2. David Hill, 24/08/2015

    I agree with Dugald’s statement about MSA, I would be in favor of developing an Australian Standard (AS) cipher that would not make a raising claim but would be underpinned by our current integrity systems, with the addition of MSA and what ever industry decided was baseline to deliver a value based outcome for the value chain. You could then possibly have a equivalent certified system for Pasture Fed (PF) giving you certified (GF) and (PF) ciphers, the rest would either be (AS) or Australian Beef (AB) as long as we rid ourselves of the (A) cipher which stands for “Anything”. Industry should come together to allow this to happen, why you ask, because currently any potential (GF) cipher product that doesn’t meet so-called quality grade chiller assessments of Meat Colour 1B-3, Fat Colour 0-3, fails as “Grain Fed” and thus sold as “Grass Fed”, this is not good enough in a modern industry as ours! Deborah, I have no interest in US integrity or lack of, I am only concerned about the integrity of Australian product. In finishing could I state that product that grades under the industry developed Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System (PCAS) must meet current MSA grading specifications, these may well change as the science develops!

  3. Dugald Cameron, 23/08/2015

    It has been interesting to note the reports in recent times about the move by some cattle producers who are seeking to identify “Grass-fed Beef” as a separate product. And the problems with getting a suitable description for the product.
    I also find it interesting, because thirty to forty years ago when the grain feeding industry was in its development phase, that industry sought to distinguish its product, because of the inconsistency of the beef in the market at that time. This was caused by the harsh climatic environment in which Australian cattle producers had to operate. The feedlot system, because it could produce growth rates all the year round, greatly improved the consistency of beef on the market, particularly in Queensland.
    For these reasons the feedlot industry sought to have a grading system established in Australia that identified beef’s eating quality to the consumer. The Meat Research Corporation made funds available to research parameters for such a system. The research program that followed was successful, identifying factors in the beef production system that could guarantee consumers a tender reliable product. But it did specify any particular production system. The MSA (Meat Standards Australia) system has been recognised world wide as “best practice”. But, it matters not whether it is grass-fed, grain-fed, pasture fed, grain assisted, hormone free, organic or whatever, all system can produce good quality product in the right circumstances. What matters is that we as an industry deliver good quality wholesome product to our consumers on a regular basis.
    There has been a trend in recent times to having food that has a “clean and green image”, and I suspect that those who are seeking to promote the grass-fed product are wanting to tap into that sentiment. If it increases the demand for beef, then it is a positive move and will benefit the whole industry.
    It should be noted however, because of the difficulty producing finished beef in the grazing environment in Australia, it would be wise if those developing a specific grass-fed brand should include MSA accreditation for it, otherwise it will likely fail because it may not meet consumer expectations.

    Great to hear from one of the industry’s “senior statesmen”, who was at the coalface in the earliest days of the beef industry’s development of product description and grading. Thank you for your contribution, Dugald! Beef Central readers are encouraged to pick up a copy of “Grainfed: The History of the Australian Lotfeeding Industry” to learn more on this topic. Click here to access more information: https://www.beefcentral.com/features/beefex-2014/capturing-the-feedlot-industrys-colourful-history-and-people-in-print-video/
    Editor.

  4. deborah newell, 22/08/2015

    Perhaps the impasse can be side stepped by looking to the qualifying descriptor ‘free grazing’ or from the poultry industry’s ‘free to graze’. This answers the concern that interested consumers have to identify whether or not intensive farming has been involved, allows ‘grass’ finishers to augment if necessary (there will be a cost feasibility in this) and allows grain grasses to remain part of the pastures that they evolved with ( rather than as monocultures). Once again I reiterate that the word ‘grain fed’ is totally misleading so it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black (or is that the other way around). I know food journalists that thought ‘grain fed’ meant the cattle grazed, freely, on grain pastures. Australia adopted the US protocols and nomenclature for what was the new kid (feedlots) on the Aussie block several decades ago. Not too sure that I agree with David Hill that following the US labelling protocols that underwrite a significant volume of US food production should fall under the ‘integrity’ label. It is, in fact, where the growing call from consumers for free-range, grass fed etc…came from – community disenchantment and distrust of industrial farming as championed by the US

  5. David Hill, 21/08/2015

    Cattle Council is not responsible for raising claim definitions, nor should they be, these need to be defined by Industry, the Industry committee responsible for defining raising claims is the Australian Meat Industry Language and Standards Committee (AMILSC). Could I suggest that it would be more appropriate to contact AUS-MEAT or the ACCC to discuss raising claims. Although AMILSC would be the committee to define raising claims, AUS-MEAT would only be responsible for overseeing trade description, I believe it would be the ACCC that is responsible for ensuring these industry definitions are followed in promotional material domestically. This is a complex area, whether industry decides to ultimately develop a Pasture Fed (PF), Grain Assisted (GA) or even an Australian Standard (AS) Cipher, it must come with a set of standards that ensures integrity as the current Grain Fed (GF) does, these must be in line with what the consumer would consider appropriate to ensure integrity.

    There is no suggestion whatsoever in this article that CCA is responsible for raising claim definitions, David. But as the representative body for grassfed beef producers, as well as the architect and delivery provider of the PCAS program, CCA has an obvious vested interest in this topic – thus Beef Central’s earlier attempts (albeit unsuccessful) to engage with CCA on the matter. Editor.

  6. deborah newell, 21/08/2015

    The problem that Geoff has mentioned is that the terminology ‘grass fed’ is wrong to begin with. ‘Pasture’ encompasses shrubs, legumes, tree foliage, even bark in tough times as well as grasses and grasses gone to head with their allocation of seeds or grains. What we call grasslands and savannahs are incredibly diverse pasture species communities that allow a range of feed options for grazers. The diversity of these plant communities also assists their own resilience with an interplay between deep and shallow rooted grasses and lower story shrubs/trees and accompanying forbs that help fix nitrogen etc… to preserve soil fertility and soil biota. So beef will never be just ‘grass fed’. I have heard the industry claim that we don’t need to confuse the consumer by reinventing or qualifying the term ‘grass fed’ but I assure you that consumers paying over $30/kg for steal cuts are pretty savvy about food and quite up for a bit of education re the provenance of the meat they are buying. Pasture is by far the more accurate term and as such is not a grain free diet as grains are pasture species. By the same token ‘grain fed’ beef would need to qualify just how much of its ration is grain as distinct to shrub seed, silage, citrus pulp, plant fibre etc…What the consumer is wanting reassurance with when they buy ‘grass’ or pastured beef is that these animals have not been intensively farmed and have access to roam even in more densely pastured properties. By nature grazers have always had access to grasses that go to seed and are very important transporters of this seed to other soils and pasturelands since the end of the Last Ice Age. The complaints coming from the grain feeders (who are by no means purists in their ration descriptions) is more to do with the huge popularity of beef coming from such free range environments that offer up a range of fodder sources cereal grasses (especially the ubiquitous wild oats) included.

  7. Geoff Haack, 21/08/2015

    Interesting problem given 1. Processors will not classify animals as grain fed unless sourced from an accredited feedlot.
    2. Grass seed is grain and we all know and have witnessed cattle “fattening” rather quickly when different grass species carry heavy volumes of seed heads

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