Steaking out the truth on beef labels

CHOICE cuts through beef labelling jargon

With steaks on supermarket shelves and restaurant menus increasingly coming from beef farmed in a variety of ways – from organic to grain-fed to hormone-free – CHOICE says consumers need to be better informed about what they are buying.

In a recent CHOICE survey (1 ) 83% of respondents said that when choosing to buy food, it was important to know whether the food is ethically produced. However, 91% said there was not enough information about ethical production.

“Consumers pay a premium for good quality steak but they may not understand what the different production methods are,” says CHOICE Food Policy Advisor Angela McDougall.

“When people order a grain-fed steak, they may not realise that this means cattle are in a feedlot for 60 or 70 days on a protein-rich diet with the primary objective of fast weight gain.”

There are more than 70,000 beef producers in Australia managing 27 million head of cattle and the path from paddock to plate can vary greatly among producers. According to estimates from the Meat & Livestock Association (MLA), Australians spent around $6.7 billion on beef in 2010 – 2011.

“Understanding the meaning of different steak descriptions can help shoppers decide what’s important to them – for some it’s the ethical concerns like animal welfare and sustainability, while for others it might come down to value for money or taste,” says Ms McDougall.

CHOICE’s beef guide aims to help consumers cut through the jargon and get a better understanding about the source of their steak.

 CHOICE’s beef labelling guide

  • Grass-fed or pasture-raised: Beef that has been pasture-fed. It is said to have intense beef flavour and firm texture.
  • Grain-fed or feedlot beef: Cattle are fed a high protein, grain-based diet to maximize weight gain. The industry standard requires steers to remain in a feedlot for 60 days and heifers for 70 in order to be sold as “grain-fed”. Grain-fed beef has fat ‘marbling’ and this is said to give it a soft texture and buttery flavour.
  •  Organic beef: Feedlot feeding is not permitted although in certain cases farming systems that are ‘naturally ideal’ for finishing livestock may be permitted when the natural environment is not suited to fattening animals. To be labelled organic, cattle must only eat feed that is certified 100% organic. Look for certified organic beef, for example the Australian Certified Organic or the Organic Growers of Australia logos.
  • Biodynamic beef: Biodynamic farming incorporates organic principles with extra emphasis on soil health.
  • Free-range beef: Similar to beef advertised as grass of pasture fed, free-range generally means animals have not been confined in a feedlot.
  • Hormone-free: Cattle on a feedlot which haven’t been injected with slow-release hormone growth promotants (HPGs) as is sometimes done to speed up fattening before sale.

CHOICE tips for selecting meat:

  • A whiter bone indicates freshness
  • Consider the cut that suits the dish you’re cooking
  • A good steak is one that is firm to touch, and has a bright cherry red colour.

CHOICE tips for ethical shoppers:

  • Look for grass fed and certified organic
  • If price is an issue, ask your butcher to cut you a palm-size piece
  • Add legumes to a beef stew to bulk it out, and have plenty of different vegies with your steak.

CHOICE tips for healthy eaters:

  • Under draft dietary guidelines, stick to a maximum of 455 g of lean meat per week or 65 g per day.
(1) In October 2012, 743 CHOICE members responded to an invitation to participate in a food labelling survey.