Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Truth in labelling: NSW lead “sends a signal to the rest of Australia”

Truth in labelling was again front page news last week, as the proposed NSW meat laws gain national momentum.

The beef grading push in NSW has united behind Richard Torbay’s Private Member’s Bill, and it looks like the rest of the country is starting to take notice. A Senate Inquiry in Canberra last week has heard that the new laws in NSW could leave other states at a disadvantage.

As reported in The Land, Tasmanian Senator Christine Milne summed up the inter-state mood in saying “we (the inquiry) are a bit over voluntary standards and self-regulation”. Labelling terms like ‘budget’ cut and ‘economy’ cut came in for particular criticism as being vague and misleading. “Few shoppers would know the term “budget” meant [the meat] was cut from an older animal”, she said.

The ‘older animal’ she is referring to is often an 8 tooth old cow at the end of its breeding life. In these cases, ‘budget’ really means a better bottom line on the budgets of the big retailers, while consumers get hard to chew, tasteless old cow beef.

These labelling terms, described by Senator Milne as "vague and misleading", and the absence of a meaningful, consumer orientated grading system, have had a significant impact on the consumption of beef in Australia.

It is no accident that red meat consumption in Australia has fallen by over 25% since 1982, while in the same period in the US, which has a well publicised, legislated and consumer oriented beef grading system, consumption has declined by just 6%.

The evidence suggests that where good quality, properly labelled meat is available, people consume more of it.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the UK, where in 1998 the beef industry reached crisis point following the emergence of mad cow disease. In response, the UK government banned the sale of beef from an animal over 30 months. Many thought this would spell disaster for the local industry. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

In the absence of old, tough, low-quality cow beef the UK market boomed. By 2003 beef consumption had actually increased by a remarkable 4.8 kg per person.

Why then did Australian beef consumption fall by 4.1 kg per person in the same period? Again, the figures tell the story: in the UK 0% of beef consumed came from old cows, whereas in Australia old cow beef comprised up to 40% of the market.

The 2001 Meat Industry Strategic Plan concluded that this downward domestic trend can be reversed by the introduction of a beef grading system guaranteeing palatability to consumers. The expected increase in consumption of red meat by (at least) one serve per person every three weeks would yield a $1.2bn annual payout to the industry from increased domestic consumption.

The beef industry cannot afford another decade of declining domestic consumption when the potential gains are so significant.

The way to get people eating that extra serve is straightforward: just give people what they pay for. If consumers think they are buying a juicy, tender, flavoursome steak off a yearling steer don’t give them tough old cow beef. To put it simply, the product offered on retailers’ shelves must match up with consumers’ expectations.

The national demand for mandatory and accurate labelling can not be held off for long. As Senator Milne told the Inquiry last week, the NSW solution “brings enforcement and compliance…it sends a signal to the rest of Australia.”

4 comments:

  1. This should have happened 40 years ago. Good on Richard Torbay.
    - Angus

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  2. Does this mean i'll soon be able to buy a decent steak at the supermarket? Hopse so.

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  3. Long overdue - a system for shopping with confidence for a decent steak. Good on you!!! - ShopperMum

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  4. I don't know many farmers who kill an old cow for themselves to eat so why should consumers not have the same choice.

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