Beef industry roasts Coles over campaign
SUPERMARKET giant Coles has defended itself against a scathing backlash over its ''no added hormones'' beef campaign, which critics say has created a ''monster'' that could damage Australia's $7.6 billion beef industry, financially cripple some farmers and butchers, and add to the environmental degradation caused by meat production.
Mark RussellJanuary 23, 2011
Meat and Livestock Australia, which acts on behalf of 47,000 meat producers, said Coles' marketing strategy could frighten consumers into thinking beef from cattle raised on growth-promoting hormones was unsafe, despite years of scientific testing showing it posed no risk.
The group told The Sunday Age it was too early to tell if customers had stopped buying beef from retailers other than Coles, but if the industry was forced to stop using hormones due to unwarranted fear, ramifications could be widespread.
Advertisement: Story continues below''It is crucial that consumers maintain their trust in the product - that the safety of Australian beef is not brought into doubt unnecessarily,'' the lobby group said.
Coles' high-profile campaign boasts that since January 1, all beef sold in its stores has been free of hormone growth promotants, or HGPs - supplements of naturally occurring hormones that reduce farming costs because they cause cattle to produce more beef from less feed.
Victorian Farmers Federation president Andrew Broad warned that Coles was ''treading a dangerous road'' by exploiting the naivety of consumers to gain a competitive edge over Woolworths at the expense of farmers.
''They're creating a monster in the mind of consumers that this is bad … when the reality is there are no health risks with HGPs,'' he said. ''The campaign implies that there's some chemical being pumped into the beef, which is just a nonsense.''
HGPs are used widely overseas, but were banned in Europe in 1988 following concerns about possible links to serious diseases including various cancers. The World Health Organisation and Australia's Department of Health, however, found no scientific evidence to support the ban.
Woolworths, Coles' main rival, dismissed the campaign as ''a supermarket gimmick that will be bad for the environment and bad for Australian farmers'', with spokesman Simon Berger saying it would not follow Coles' lead.
''We have absolute confidence in the Australian beef industry … We have no plans to dictate to them how it's produced,'' he said.
''Removing technology means you need more cattle, eating more food, on more land, producing more methane over more time to produce the same beef. Someone will pay for that - either farmers or customers, as well as the environment.''
The Coles campaign, featuring chef Curtis Stone, declares that: ''All the fresh beef you find in our meat departments … will be nothing but 100 per cent Australian beef, with no added hormones. So all that great Aussie beef you love to feed your family will now be even more tender than ever.''
Choice's Christopher Zinn said the ''clever'' marketing strategy could jeopardise Australia's beef industry. He said Coles would have known how emotive the term ''hormones'' would be to the public and the impact it would have on beef sales at other outlets.
But Coles spokesman Jim Cooper defended the campaign, and stressed that Coles wasn't saying HGP-raised beef was unsafe, it was saying that HGP-free beef was of a higher quality and tasted better.
''We are doing what we need to do to improve the quality of beef we sell to customers and that's all this is about for us,'' Mr Cooper said.
He said Coles, which processes 350,000 cattle each year, had been planning the move to HGP-free beef for years. The initiative will cost tens of millions of dollars, as Coles will have to pay its suppliers more to farm a greater number of animals to produce the same amount of meat. He said these costs would not be passed on to customers.
The move is clearly part of a strategy by Coles to stock ethically produced food and follows announcements that it will ban pork from pigs kept in sow stalls by 2014 and will stop using cage eggs for its house brands by 2013.
The Cattle Council of Australia said it was disappointed in Coles' latest beef campaign as it usually ''encourages consultation'' with retailers over the language that they used for beef marketing.
The CSIRO's Professor Alan Bell confirmed there was no proof that HGPs in beef posed a health threat to consumers. But a recent CSIRO study, published in the journal Animal Production Science, supports Coles' assertion that HGP-free beef is more tender. The study found the hormones had a ''negative influence'' on tenderness, taste and quality''.
HGPs have been used in Australia since 1979, and about 40 per cent of cattle are now implanted with slow-release HGPs, which add an estimated $210 million in production gains to the Australian beef industry each year.
According to Meat and Livestock Australia, if HGPs were not used, the Australian cattle herd would need to increase by 7 per cent, or more than 2 million head, to produce the yearly quota of 2.3 million tonnes of beef. This would increase water and feed costs, further straining farmers already struggling after years of drought and floods.
The group said the amount of hormones found in HGP-raised beef was far lower than the level of hormones naturally occurring in many foods. One egg contained about the same amount of oestrogen as 77 kilograms of beef.
But Biological Farmers of Australia spokesman Dr Andrew Monk said most people would be surprised to learn that the beef they normally bought had any added hormones at all.
''We see the Coles move as certainly positive, a move back into the direction of recognising natural as arguably a better option for consumers,'' he said.
Australia banned added hormones in chickens 50 years ago due to health fears, but a persistent myth remains that hormones in chickens have been causing girls to reach puberty earlier and grow bigger breasts.
HGPs are not used in lamb but pork farmers use a hormone called porcine somatotropin, which replicates a natural hormone produced in pigs.