It has been difficult not to miss Coles’ latest marketing bonanza: no added hormones in its beef. Since January 1 all Coles fresh beef has been free of hormone growth promotants (HGPs) – an Australian supermarket first, no less! But what does this really mean?
Hormone Growth Promotants have been used in Australia for 30 years to boost weight gain in cattle. They are inserted as implants behind a bull or heifer’s ear and slowly release a dose of hormones over time. They help farmers grow bigger cattle with less feed, which reduces the cost of production. In a nutshell, HGPs boost profits. Greater output at lower cost also helps keep the price of beef down, which satiates the average consumer’s appetite for cheap beef.
Coles’ sales pitch is that its HGP-free beef will be more tender (which perhaps doesn’t say much about the beef it was flogging previously), and consumers won’t pay any more for the privilege.
We’ve all been there. Bought a cheap, supermarket steak, carefully oiled, seasoned and barbecued it – timed it with precision – yet still felt like we were eating the sole of a festy old Blundstone boot. At the height of the Australian barbecue season, Coles’ announcement captured our attention.
By adopting a HGP-free beef policy Coles sounded the alarm about hormone supplements raging through the food chain – which was news to some consumers. It was the perfect marketing strategy.
So what’s the bigger picture?
Well, if you’re eating Australian beef in Australia, there’s a very good chance that the rib-eye on your plate, or the burger on your barbie is from HGP-free cattle anyway.
Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) confirmed to The Food Sage that about 40 percent of the Australian cattle that make their way into the domestic food chain are raised using hormone supplements – so there is a greater chance of buying HGP-free beef.
In Southern Australia in particular, which comprises New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory – or three-quarters of the Australian population, the use of HGPs has “decreased markedly” since 1988 (when the European Union banned their use), according to a recent report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Southern Australia, which produces about half of the country’s beef, isn’t prone to the same seasonal fluctuations in the nutritive value of pasture as Northern Australia so “cattle can generally meet the age and weight specifications for [export] markets without the added boost from an HGP”, the report says. Additionally, in Tasmania the government has legislated that HGPs not be used in the Tasmanian beef industry.
On the other hand, HGPs are used extensively in Northern Australia, which ships half of its beef offshore – or about 80 percent of Australia’s live beef exports.
The Food Sage’s Sydney-based butcher summed it up by saying Coles was using “scare tactics” because most Australians already consumed HGP-free beef, particularly those in the Southern states.
What’s to be scared about?
According to Meat and Livestock Australia’s website page on HGPs there is negligible difference in the hormone levels found in beef from cattle that have been given HGPs compared to cattle that have not. And because HGPs are supplements of naturally occurring hormones, they are safe for human consumption.
In 2003, Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing (Therapeutic Good Administration) said “there is unlikely to be any appreciable health risk to consumers”. But the very use of the word “unlikely” plants a seed of doubt. And the fact that the European Union banned the use of HGPs in 1988 over concerns about links to diseases fuels further distrust. The fact is, adding hormones to meat is an emotive issue. Online discussion of the issue shows that consumers link HGPs to everything from increased levels of obesity, to the lower age of puberty in girls, and so-called ‘man boobs’. Whether rightly or wrongly, consumers link HGPs to health concerns.
Coles hasn’t mentioned health concerns during its campaign. It doesn’t have to. By simply mentioning HGPs it has tapped consumer fears, which will no doubt work to its advantage.
Instead, Coles has skillfully played the ‘tender beef’ card. Purchasers of HGP-free beef will get meat that is more tender, right? Not necessarily.
A tender issue
The CSIRO report shows that hormonal treatment has a negative influence on the tenderness and eating quality of beef, findings which are supported a report by the Beef Cooperative Research Centre. However, HGP treatment affects some cuts more than others – namely the main grilling cuts, such as striploin, sirloin and scotch fillet. Harder working muscles such as oyster blade show almost no HGP effect on tenderness.
So oyster blade is likely to be no more tender simply because it is HGP-free. Similarly, a prime steak from an animal raised on hormone supplements could be just as tender as an HGP-free counterpart if it has been well aged.
There are also many other factors that influence the tenderness or beef, including the breed of the cattle, their age, the fat content, the stress levels of an animal pre-slaughter, how far it has travelled, how it is processed, and the way it is cooked. To say that HGP-free beef will be more tender – in isolation of these other factors – is simplifying a complicated issue.
Sceptism around Coles’ claims was summed up by Australian Beef Association chairman Brad Bellinger who told the AAP news service:
“Realistically, there’s no evidence to support the claim that their shoppers will get better tasting beef.”
So if Coles cannot guarantee that its HGP-free beef is more tender and palatable, what has it achieved? First mover advantage, for one. As one comment posted to an online news report on the issues said:
“I didn’t realise that my family and I were eating beef treated with a hormone … Looks like I will be buying my beef from Coles in the near future.”
Another reader concurred:
“Well done Coles! I haven’t shopped in your stores for a very long time, but now you have my attention.”
Coles has also hit a nerve in the meat industry, which will suffer financially if other retailers follow Coles’ lead. The additional feed required by industry would put more strain on farmers. A larger national herd would also put greater pressure on the environment. The herd would have to increase from 28.04 million to 29.75 million to produce the same tonnage of HGP-free beef, according to the CSIRO report, which would produce more of the greenhouse gas methane.
Coles has not committed to stocking pasture-raised beef, which is likely to have had a happier, less stressful life. Nor has it not committed to sourcing beef that is chemical free. But it has reinvigorated debate around HGPs in the food chain, and for that it should be congratulated.
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