The crusade for things organic is entering the meat area too in Australia. Coles, a prominent supermarket chain, has vowed to pull off beef beefed up by growth hormones. The announcement has sent shockwaves across the meat industry.
Experts predict higher beef prices as more customers demand hormone-free meat, which makes up about half of all beef sold in Australia.
Farmers have been able to use hormone growth promotants (HGPs) to boost muscle growth in cattle since 1979, backed by safety approval from health authorities.
HGPs are a group of veterinary drugs that mimic the hormones that influence cattle growth.
• improve the rate of food conversion in cattle,
• may be natural or synthetic,
• are implanted by means of a pellet under the skin of the ear
Female hormones such as oestradiol and progesterone, or male hormones like testosterone and trenbolone acetate, or a combination of both, are among the more favoured additives.
Although HGPs are widely used throughout Australia and the rest of the world, the European Union (EU) imposed a ban on the use of HGPs in 1988. Since then, all beef and beef products exported to the EU and other HGP sensitive markets must come from cattle that have not been treated with HGPs at any stage of their lives. The ban is strictly enforced and as a result of this, Australia has had to implement a system of identification that guarantees the beef products exported to the EU and other HGP sensitive markets are HGP free, while at the same time allowing cattle producers to use HGPs on animals destined for other markets.
Meantime meat industry research has also revealed a major consumer backlash against the additives. In a survey of 1000 people by Meat and Livestock Australia leaked to The Sunday Mail
, almost half said they would consume less meat if it had added hormones, while 16 per cent would "never touch again" and 15 per cent would also "actively warn others".
Other research shows HGP-free beef is more tender than meat with the hormones, it is reported.
Industry experts now fear a "knock-on effect" from Coles' ban as other retailers are forced to fall into line, pushing up the price of the meat because hormone-free meat costs more to produce.
CSIRO livestock industry chief Alan Bell said HGPs were a safe and effective way to improve beef production, and said the Coles campaign would probably cause a price hike, despite the supermarket's promise to absorb costs.
"If there's a knock-on effect and Woolworths (rival chain) decides to do the same thing, you could see a large effect on prices," he said.
"There's really no logic to these concerns about hormones. The problem is that the word 'hormone' is an emotive one."
Australian Cattle Council chief David Inall agreed, saying the "no hormones" marketing campaign needlessly frightened customers.
"I'm concerned about the fallout," he said. "There could be some very disappointing outcomes.
"The fact is that all beef in Australia, whether it's sold here or exported, is excellent quality and completely safe . . . we believe farmers should have access to all technology, so long as it's underpinned by science. HGPs have been approved at every level."