Clearer descriptions on horizon for grainfed, grassfed beef – and everything ‘in between’

Beef Central, by Jon Condon, 31 October 2017

THE Australian beef industry will have access to new beef product description ciphers in the wake of recent Australian Meat Industry Language & Standards Committee (AMILSC) decisions.

The development of new ciphers has basically come about by the industry need to try to address a large ‘middle ground’ of cattle which fail to accurately meet current agreed standards for grainfed and grassfed.

For all other cattle not meeting current ‘Grain Fed’ Standards (see below), there has been a tendency to ‘default’ those carcases into a general ‘grassfed’ grouping, even when they have had access to a grain-based feed during a finishing period.

That situation came to a head at recent branded beef competitions, where cattle known to have come out of paddocks containing grain self-feeders have won highly competitive ‘grassfed’ beef classes.

This ambiguity has not rested well with the growing number of legitimate certified grassfed beef producers across Australia, who feel their carefully-described and independently-audited product, increasingly being rewarded with premiums, is being compromised.

Firstly, let’s step-through the confirmed, and likely new ciphers.  In some of the programs discussed below, there will be both certified (i.e. independently audited), and non-certified variants.

A new proposed Grain Fed Finished (GFF) cipher will cover cattle coming out of NFAS-accredited feedlots, which have not been fed to current Grain Fed (GF) or Grain Fed Young Beef (GFYG) cipher requirements (minimum 60-70 days, depending on gender). The new GFF Standard will require a minimum of 35 days on feed with a requirement that Meat Standards Australia (MSA) eligibility criteria are also met. Some domestic supermarket cattle for Coles and Woolworths, for example, exit the feedlot before completing a 60-70 day cycle, having reached a required level of finish.

Another new cipher and standard will cover cattle that are finished in a grass paddock environment, but which includes self-feeders providing access to a grain-based ration. A good example of this production system is the large Ceres Agriculture program in northern NSW (click here to view earlier Ceres article).

Reference to the new Standard for this production system and key components have been agreed as part of the Animal Raising Claim Framework for Beef Production Systems in Australia which was finalised by industry as recently as Friday. All industry sectors have supported the adoption of a cipher for this category of animal.

Generic marketing terms used to describe such cattle across industry include phrases like ‘Grain Assisted’ or ‘Cereal Finished.’ Industry has already agreed to that as a marketing claim, linked to the new standard that is under development. The term ‘Fodder Fed’ has been agreed for this new Standard. While its critics say this term is somewhat vague, and the word ‘fodder’ can mean virtually anything, in the context of the Framework, the diet will be defined as part of the verification process.

Already completed and established are two new raising claims for grassfed animals: ‘Pasturefed/Grassfed (Certified)’ and ‘Pasturefed/Grassfed (non-certified)’. Both will entail being raised and finished on pasture, with no access to grain. Examples of such programs  would include farm-assured brand programs like JBS’s Great Southern, Teys’s Grasslands, the Pasturefed Cattle Assurance Scheme (PCAS) and Greenhams’ Cape Grim.

Up to 15 classifications for raising claims

An important point to note is that the cipher appearing on a carton end panel is virtually never seen at retail or food service level, being used exclusively in the trade. That minimises the risk of any consumer confusion over the expansion in the number of available ciphers.

But under the various categories within the Framework, the raising claims will be aligned with certain marketing claims, that brand managers can use to take the product to the consumer.

Up to 15 different classifications for animal raising claims may exist in Australia after the latest additions. Many of these are already in place, such as ‘Raised without antibiotics,’ ‘HGP-free’, ‘Natural,’ ‘Free-range,’ ‘Certified Organic’ and others.

Also recently launched was the new Eating Quality Graded (*EQG*) cipher, which moves from current dentition-based quality ciphers like *YG*, *YP* and *PR*, to MSA index scores as a gauge of quality. See Beef Central’s earlier story on launch of the *EQG* cipher here.

“While the move to expand the number of raising claims may appear to complicate product description, it will in fact stop all of the confusion and risk of misrepresentation,” AusMeat chair Allan Bloxsom told Beef Central.

Mr Bloxsom said it would be up to the trade to determine where, and how quickly the new ciphers and raising claims were adopted. He agreed that processors were likely to apply them first in the domestic trade, but certain export markets could follow.

While only one cipher can appear on each carton end-panel, there was nothing stopping processors using multiple references (*EQG*, GFF for example, indicating eating quality graded and the new Grain Fed Finished) in their dealings with customers.

While newer brands could see merit in the new suite of ciphers and raising claims, some brand managers whose products are already well established in the marketplace may in fact see little need to change their current ciphers.

“But if they wanted to launch into a new market, for example, it could come into play. The industry has now set a suite of descriptors in place that they can choose from, which accurately matches a much broader range of beef products being produced in Australia,” Mr Bloxsom said.

“One of the issues AusMeat currently faces on a regular basis is enquiries from brand managers asking, ‘What can I call this certain product?’ That’s now much easier to answer.”

“And whatever that standard is, it can now be much more easily linked to various marketing claims. Even regulators like ACCC will be able to refer to an industry standard.”

While last year’s Beef Language White Paper made some recommendations about moving down the current path in product description, the industry has in fact been working on this project for two years or more.

The white paper (click here to view earlier report) makes numerous references to such raising claims.

The latest move to expand ciphers and raising claims may also help avoid the risk of a proliferation of certified trademarks appearing on beef products, approved through ACCC.

Typical use of a cipher/symbol on a carton end panel – in this case for Grain Fed Young Beef (GFYG)

Industry reaction

One of the interest groups watching the development of new ciphers and raising claims closely has been the Australian Lot Feeders Association.

ALFA chief executive officer Christian Mulders welcomed the recent work undertaken by industry and the Australian Meat Industry Language and Standards Committee.

“We’re supportive of robust industry standards, systems and programs linked to AusMeat trade description, as these ensure product integrity, accurate and uniform product description and ultimately truth in labelling for consumers,” he said.

“Trade description for Grainfed beef has been operational since the early 1990s with the establishment of the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and the Australian Grain Fed Beef Minimum Standard specifications. It is recognised by customers and consumers alike.”

ALFA has been working on a proposed additional grainfed standard called Grain Fed Finished. This was in response to recommendations in the 2016 Beef Language White Paper and also the 2015 review of the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme (NFAS). Importantly, the existing Grain Fed Standards will not change, Mr Mulders said.

“The proposed additional Grain Fed Finished standard, with its NFAS, minimum number of days on feed (35), and ration requirements, as well as the MSA grading overlay, will provide feedlot operators and brand owners further flexibility around producing quality and highly-valued grain fed beef.”

“It is still some way off implementation, while we work through the administration and communication efforts needed to have the standard released into the trade next year,” Mr Mulders said.

The Australian Meat Industry Council’s Patrick Hutchinson said additional ciphers and the standards that went with products falling into each category, was all about the ability of customers to utilise the information, to service their customers.

“Australia produces beef under a variety of production systems, and this allows stakeholders to better reflect the nature of the beef they are producing,” he said.

“These days, that’s often about underpinning brands, and raising claims. We want to ensure that the industry language and standards continue to give stakeholders the ability to underpin those brands in a cost-effective, efficient and meaningful way.”

The additional ciphers will apply to both certified and non-certified company programs, Mr Hutchinson said.