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SMH Article on Hormones

March 3, 2011

Hormones? Nohormones?
Author: John van tiggelen
Date: 26/02/2011
Words: 3433
Source: SMH
Publication: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 19
Does it make any difference to the beef on our plate, and why should we care? The inside story on the latest supermarket marketing war. By john van tiggelen.
In mid-2008, a survey commissioned by the country’s $8-billion beef industry found that one in three consumers would never touch Australian beef again if they were told that hormones had been used in its production. Another 39 per cent responded they would eat less. Thing was, hormones were being used; almost half of Australia’s 28 million beef cattle are at some point plugged with hormones to produce our sausages, steaks, burgers, roasts and the mince for our spag bol. The study concluded, rather ner-vously, “There is a significant risk to consumer confidence from a rise in consciousness.”

Beef producers realised they had painted themselves into a corner. For years, the industry had gone out of its way to defer any such “rise in consciousness”. The hormone implants, keenly marketed by the pharmaceutical giants, boost growth rates in steers and heifers by up to 30 per cent. Put simply, a $4 cartridge, implanted behind the ear and lasting about three months, typically

returns at least 10 times that value in extra meat, less fodder and saved time.

But you won’t read about it in industry profiles or press releases. The industry’s reliance on hormones has proceeded very quietly. Beef types tend to tiptoe around the H-word for fear of unleashing community concern about food safety and animal welfare. As one insider told me, “Australians think hormones are used to produce chicken meat [which they are not; see box, page 25]. They don’t think hormones are used in producing beef. Our attitude has been, ‘Great, that’s chicken’s problem.’”

Whenever the hormones are mentioned, they are referred to as HGPs (hormone growth promotants). Invariably described as “naturally occurring”, most HGPs are synthetic versions of the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen, often in combination. Others are powerful anabolic steroids, such as trenbolone, a favourite of body-builders.

Although there is scant evidence of health risks with hormone-grown beef, food safety concerns persist. The European Union, for instance, has upheld a ban since 1988 on precautionary grounds, in defiance of the World Trade Organisation, which has ruled any such ban be based on science. There are also animal welfare concerns, although these, too, are debatable. What is not in dispute, but what the public remains blissfully unaware of, is that the bulking up of beef compromises its eating quality. The meat is tougher, with less marbling fat, more muscle. Over past decades, the faddist appeal of “lean meat” lent the industry an excuse to keep hushed this detail, but more recently, as consumers have become increasingly discerning about meat quality, the industry realised it had to do something. It needed to look after its base – the farmers – but it could no longer afford to ignore the interests of consumers.

The industry’s research and marketing arm, Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA), recognised that as long as customers were kept in the dark about the quality of the cut of beef they were buying, there would be little financial incentive for farmers to produce meat of high quality. Labelling hormone-raised beef as such was not an option; the H-word would spook consumers. Instead, the MLA refined a retail grading system, under which producers would be rewarded – and customers would be expected to pay more – for better-quality beef. It was an elegant, credible system, called Meat Standards Australia (MSA). Although MSA guidelines shied away from overtly discouraging it, hormone treatment was acknowledged as one of a range of factors having a negative effect on tenderness, along with tropical cattle breeds, stress at mustering, poor slaughterhouse techniques and inadequate hanging and ageing of meat. All other things being equal, premium beef cuts would be graded higher if they were hormone-free.

Most high-end producers, processors and retailers backed the MSA system. However, the supermarket chains, which control two-thirds of domestic meat sales, refused to take it up. Their customers were price-sensitive, first and foremost. Why risk telling them whether the meat was any good or not? It was cheap.

Australia’s beef producers felt thwarted. The two biggest players were Woolworths, with 31 per cent of the market, and Coles, with 20 per cent (butchers account for 25 per cent). The industry sat on the issue of hormone use as it continued to lobby the retail giants. But Coles was secretly working on a plan of its own. Last spring, without warning, the company came clean. From January 1, Coles announced, all its beef would be hormone-free, and labelled as such. It had dropped the H-bomb.

Is it safer?

at coles hq, a monolithic complex overlooking Melbourne’s Monash Freeway, the H-word is front and centre. The reception area opens up to a cavernous food hall, which is ringed with hoarding depicting the company’s new, clean beef. Curtis Stone, Coles’ resident celebrity chef, is on high rotation on the big screen above, further extolling the virtues of going hormone-free.

I’m here to talk to Allister Watson, the general manager of meat, who arrives with Jim Cooper, Coles’ communications manager. The men look as smug as a pair of winning cricketers. Two weeks into the campaign, the commercial signs are excellent: customers are happy, competitors are not. Hormone-free beef is fast shaping up as a key point of difference between Coles and Woolworths, which has thus far declared it won’t follow Coles’ example.

Woolworths has the peak industry bodies on side. Many farmers, operating on tight margins, are highly indignant about being told how to raise their cattle. Hormone plugs boost the nation’s annual beef yield to the tune of $210 million – meat that otherwise would have to be sourced from two million extra cattle consuming so much more food and producing so much more methane. But the greater fear is that Coles has rocked consumer confidence so much that overall demand for beef will plummet, both domestically and in overseas markets. Andrew Broad, head of the Victorian Farmers Federation, accuses Coles of “creating a monster in the minds of consumers”, while the Cattle Council of Australia’s David Inall has claimed the move “needlessly frightens customers”.

Watson and Cooper play a dead bat to the accusations of scare-mongering. “We’ve never said there’s any issue from a food safety or an animal welfare point of view with HGPs,” says Watson. To be sure, the campaign slogan on the placards around us is “No Added Hormones. More Tender”. At the same time, Coles hasn’t exactly poured cold water on community fears. I point out that in its initial press release last spring, the company announced it was “responding to community concerns about food safety and animal welfare”.

Watson doesn’t miss a beat. “Consumers are concerned, though. They want to know that an animal is grown naturally. They want to know what goes into their food.

“They don’t want added hormones. They may well see that as an animal welfare or a food safety concern. We don’t believe it is; for us it’s about eating quality and tenderness. Although I would always question, ‘Why did the EU ban them?’ ‘Why did Tasmania ban them?’”

The answer to these questions, as Watson and Cooper well know, is a mix of concern, precaution and, in the case of Tasmania (as in the case of Coles), branding. After all, Coles has quietly – but presumably safely – been purveying vast quantities of hormone-raised beef to generations of Australians until now. On the available evidence, hormone concentrations in hormone-boosted beef are not meaningfully higher than in hormone-free beef.

But try explaining that to the public now. The H-word resonates precisely because consumers have been kept in the dark for so long, including by Coles. “No Added Hormones” sounds more like a warning than a slogan, and implicitly urges people to jump to their own conclusions. It’s very much like the debate over the labelling of genetically modified foods: the mere act of labelling reinforces consumer suspicion that GM foods are less safe, which they’re not. (The key arguments against GM foods are environmental and ethical.) Meanwhile, the backlash from the beef industry helps further raise awareness that Coles beef is “clean” but other beef might not be.

No wonder Watson is looking pleased. He insists, though, that the Coles push is about improving eating quality. When Watson, a Kiwi, arrived at the company in early 2009, Coles had a dire reputation for the quality of its prime cuts. Discerning meat buyers had shunned the store for decades in favour of its “Fresh Food” rival, Woolworths (aka Safeway), and other retailers. To check for himself, Watson bought, cooked and compared various cuts of beef. “Ours wasn’t as good as our competitors’, ” he admits frankly. “We’d gone too far down the value path. The

reality is consumers are always price-sensitive but they’re quality-conscious as well. People might buy something because it’s cheap but if it’s no good, they don’t come back.

“Meat being the centre of plate, if you buy your meat at a supermarket you’re likely to buy the rest of the things that go with that meat. It’s a really important part of trust from a consumer’s point of view.”

Clearly, Coles had a credibility problem. Cooking shows were fast educating the public about food quality, and the biggest cooking show of all, MasterChef Australia, was sponsored by Coles. It urgently needed to put its meat where its mouth was.

Under Watson, Coles began sourcing more southern cattle, as opposed to tougher, tropical breeds, as well as reviewing its meat-processing techniques. “Two years ago we would buy mainly on price, from most suppliers on the market, wholesale, and we wouldn’t really know what we were buying,” says Watson. “Now we wanted to know everything about the animal before it went to our supermarkets.”

Late last year, a survey by Choice, the consumer magazine, confirmed the chain’s meat had improved markedly. Its reputation, however, was lagging. Coles needed to go one better: “To go the next step, you take the HGPs out. That makes more difference to quality than any other factor,” says Watson.

Going hormone-free finally gave Coles the attention it needed to awaken consumers to its new approach, but at a cost. As Cooper’s counterpart at Woolworths, Simon Berger, told The Sunday Age recently, “Removing technology means you need more cattle, eating more food, on more land, producing more methane over more time to produce the same [amount of] beef. Someone will pay for that – either farmers or customers, as well as the environment.”

Coles initially claimed that it would pay for it. The figure bandied about was $35 million. These days, Cooper is careful to play down Coles’ ostensible benevolence. “It’s a cost that we wear across the business. It doesn’t get passed on specifically as part of the product to the customer,” he says. “We’re not stupid. We expect consumers to be more satisfied so they’ll buy more from us.”

More meat, of course, and more of everything else. In order to lure shoppers from its rivals, both in-store and increasingly online, Coles has been enthusiastically positioning itself as a more ethical choice. Its hormone-free beef campaign, for instance, comes on top of widely publicised pledges to move away from battery-cage-laid eggs and to ban pork from producers who use sow stalls (cramped cages that severely limit a sow’s movement). Coming initiatives, as flagged by Watson, include sourcing its chickens from less densely packed sheds, limiting fresh fish sales to sustainable species and curtailing additives in its processed meats.

“We want to clean up our products,” Watson says. Admirable as all this sounds, there’s good money in it, too. For example, although the sow stall ban doesn’t take effect until 2014, the announcement alone saw Coles pork sales rise more than 10 per cent.

In this context, a commercial decision to go hormone-free looks for all the world like a moral one, and Coles, bless its capitalist soul, is revelling in it. When the company was recently attacked by a group calling itself the Animal Health Alliance, Jim Cooper took great pleasure in pointing out that the alliance was a front for the pharmaceutical behemoths who peddle the hormones.

There’s just one little side effect, barely mentioned. Supermarkets derive most of their beef from animals guzzling grain in feedlots. Without hormones, cattle destined for the supermarket will logically need to spend more time in feedlots to reach their target weight.

Feedlot v free-range?

coles sources much of its beef from the Charlton Feedlot in north-western Victoria. The feedlot hosts up to 20,000 cattle, which stay two to five months prior to slaughter. (There are bigger feedlots in inland NSW and southern Queensland, where cattle bound mostly for the Japanese market stay for up to 10 months.)

Though eight square kilometres in size, the Charlton Feedlot is not easy to find. It lies well downwind from town, un-signposted and hidden from the road by dikes.

Somewhat surprisingly, Stephen Reynolds, the manager, is happy to show me around. In earlier, less-regulated days, some feedlots were cowboy operations. Sick cattle went untreated, others went unfed and it wasn’t uncommon for hundreds to die en masse in a heatwave.

In the past 10 years, however, operators have cleaned up their act and Elders, which owns the Charlton Feedlot, doesn’t want to be seen as having something to hide. Indeed, environmentalist Tim Flannery is due the following day as part of his new television show. (Flannery disapproves of feedlots. In an essay two years ago, he called them “highly polluting and unsustainable”.)

“The whole ethos behind a feedlot is to produce a consistent product, every day of the year,” says Reynolds. “Butchers and supermarkets will buy and sell grass-finished beef when the season’s good, but to produce a consistent product to the quantities that some of our customers require, we need a production system that can churn out cattle every day of the year.”

Feedlots, in effect, turn every season into spring. Reynolds calls his workplace a farm, which is a stretch. But neither is it a factory. On this hot January day it stinks, but not fearfully so. The flies and dust are manageable. And it’s placid. Out of 16,000 animals, not one is lowing. Grouped with like-sized animals in large enclosures, they mooch about much like cows in the paddock, but for one odd thing: they’re not ruminating or chewing the cud. Unlike grass, the grain diet passes straight through their first stomach compartment, the rumen.

Some pens have shade-cloth, some don’t – “It’s a capital thing” is the justification. In several pens cattle are perched on man-high mounds. “That’s manure,” explains Reynolds. “Through winter we pile it up so they can stand up out of the wet.”

The dung is sold in bulk to fruit and vegetable growers. We watch a computerised feed truck, worth $300,000, dispense a calibrated muesli of wheat, barley, silage and molasses-based vitamins and minerals into the feed troughs. Much of the grain is sourced from surrounding crop farmers, which no doubt helps them tolerate the smell. Contrary to public belief, the animals are not fed antibiotics, unless they’re sick.

I ask Reynolds how many cattle have hormone implants. “More than don’t,” he says. “Let me show you what an HGP looks like.” He pulls up his ute at the processing yards, where cattle from all over the state are unloaded, weighed, scanned (by law every animal is equipped with an electronic identification tag) and, if necessary, vaccinated and treated for parasites. They’re also checked for past hormone treatment – some farmers still use HGPs in the field, especially in Queensland. The HGP plug is a slender cartridge of slow-release hormone pellets and metal ball bearings that is injected behind the ear, between the skin and the cartilage, with a bolt gun. “It’s got a fair-sized needle on it, as you’d imagine,” says Reynolds, fingering its sharpness. I imagine there’d be a fair bit of lowing, too. Aside from the ball bearings, designed to set off a metal detector at the slaughteryards, each hormone-treated animal is also marked with a triangular ear punch, to ensure the carcass does not end up in a hormone-free consignment.

The average hormone-boosted, supermarket-bound beast spends 10 weeks in the feedlot, at which point the implant is pretty much spent. Reynolds won’t comment directly on the Coles decision to go hormone-free, because Elders also supplies Woolworths. But if, as Reynolds informs me, a hormone-free heifer puts on about 1.6 kilograms a day in the feedlot, and a hormone-boosted heifer about two kilos a day, it follows that cattle destined for Coles will need to spend several weeks longer in the feedlot to reach their target weight. Reynolds nods. “At the end of the day, whatever our customers want, we’ll do it. But on strictly commercial terms. The product will cost more to produce, so we’ll charge [Coles] more.”

A tender issue

coles’ allister watson prefers grass-fed beef himself. “It’s got a fuller flavour,” he says. Jim Cooper, the company spin doctor, quickly interjects that there’s no accounting for taste. The company’s product is overwhelmingly grain-fed, after all. And plenty of restaurants still proudly proclaim their steaks to consist of 300-day, even 400-day, grain-fed beef.

I ask the men what they make of consumer concerns about feedlotting. Animal welfare groups such as Animal Liberation, for instance, have made much more noise about feedlots than about hormones. Says Watson, “Feedlots can be portrayed badly. They’re a good way of finishing an animal under controlled conditions, I think. We’re comfortable with it.” He compares the feedlot “lifestyle” to affluent living. “It’s the same with humans: the better the conditions, the faster, the bigger you grow.”

Several industry insiders tell me that Coles is looking at buying its own feedlots, and possibly abattoirs, to streamline operations and cut costs. (Watson and Cooper neither confirm nor deny this.) If so, Coles might well pick them up cheaply. There is a broad sense within the industry – a sense of foreboding, for many – that the Coles decision to go hormone-free is a capitulation of sorts, and that factory-like production of beef may have peaked. Grain is expensive, but all the more so if hormones can’t be used to more efficiently convert it to meat, and thus to profits. Little wonder big beef producers are anxiously waiting to see if the Coles push will have a knock-on effect to other major retailers.

“I think it’s a shame they’ve taken this approach,” says John Wyld, a beef producer from western Victoria and a past president of the Cattle Council of Australia. “We’ll see whether it pays off for them.”

Coles is hardly the first to go hormone-free – recent years have seen a surge in the popularity of boutique beef products that guarantee quality and farm provenance. “The writing is on the wall,” says Bill Bray, another past president of the Cattle Council who now runs Enviromeat, a “Gippsland beef raised as nature intended” and sold through selected butchers and restaurants, including Melbourne’s MoVida. “More and more people are looking for a natural product, produced sustainably. That’s just not going to change.”

what’s in our fresh meat?

The short answer is not a lot apart from meat, at least not by the time it hits the plate. Australian meat is clean by international standards. The chicken, pork, lamb, beef and salmon/tuna industries are all tightly regulated, and growers must adhere to stringent guidelines as to what chemical may be administered, at what dose and for how long, and at what point before slaughter chemical use must cease to ensure little trace remains in the meat. In its most recent testing of Australian fresh beef, the National Residue Survey found 99.9 per cent compliance with prescribed safety standards for the use of pesticides and other chemicals.

These chemicals include hormones and antibiotics. Steroid hormones, known as hormonal growth promotants (HGPs), are used almost solely in cattle, and have been banned in the production of chicken meat for more than

40 years. Another powerful growth promotant, although not a hormone, goes by the name of ractopamine and is used in the production of Australian pork. As with HGPs, the European Union has banned its use, as has China.

Hormones are also administered to increase twinning rates in ewes and to synchronise the reproduction cycles of mares, ewes and cows for the purposes of artificial insemination.

Meanwhile, antibiotics are routinely included in chicken, pig and salmon feed to prevent disease breaking out among animals so closely confined. Cattle are generally not given antibiotics for prophylactic reasons, but they are often fed low-dose antibiotics during their initial days in a feedlot, to change the gut flora so they might adapt better to the abrupt change of diet from grass to grain

One Comment leave one →
  1. Bryn Rees BScAgr permalink
    March 5, 2011 11:06 am

    Good article. It is a shame that Coles do not recognise the fact that the most “unnatural” process in beef production is the castration of bulls to produce steers- This is the human removal of hormones produced by the testes. HGP’s replace these hormones.

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