Hormone-free beef: what’s the catch?

black angus beef calves

Black angus calves (iStockphoto.com)

It has been difficult not to miss Coles’ latest marketing bonanza: no added hormones in its beef. Since January 1 all Coles fresh beef has been free of hormone growth promotants (HGPs) – an Australian supermarket first, no less!  But what does this really mean?

Hormone Growth Promotants have been used in Australia for 30 years to boost weight gain in cattle. They are inserted as implants behind a bull or heifer’s ear and slowly release a dose of hormones over time. They help farmers grow bigger cattle with less feed, which reduces the cost of production. In a nutshell, HGPs boost profits. Greater output at lower cost also helps keep the price of beef down, which satiates the average consumer’s appetite for cheap beef.

Coles’ sales pitch is that its HGP-free beef will be more tender (which perhaps doesn’t say much about the beef it was flogging previously), and consumers won’t pay any more for the privilege.

We’ve all been there. Bought a cheap, supermarket steak, carefully oiled, seasoned and barbecued it – timed it with precision – yet still felt like we were eating the sole of a festy old Blundstone boot. At the height of the Australian barbecue season, Coles’ announcement captured our attention.

By adopting a HGP-free beef policy Coles sounded the alarm about hormone supplements raging through the food chain – which was news to some consumers. It was the perfect marketing strategy.

So what’s the bigger picture?

Well, if you’re eating Australian beef in Australia, there’s a very good chance that the rib-eye on your plate, or the burger on your barbie is from HGP-free cattle anyway.

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) confirmed to The Food Sage that about 40 percent of the Australian cattle that make their way into the domestic food chain are raised using hormone supplements – so there is a greater chance of buying HGP-free beef.

In Southern Australia in particular, which comprises New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory – or three-quarters of the Australian population, the use of HGPs has “decreased markedly” since 1988 (when the European Union banned their use), according to a recent report by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Southern Australia, which produces about half of the country’s beef, isn’t prone to the same seasonal fluctuations in the nutritive value of pasture as Northern Australia so “cattle can generally meet the age and weight specifications for [export] markets without the added boost from an HGP”, the report says. Additionally, in Tasmania the government has legislated that HGPs not be used in the Tasmanian beef industry.

On the other hand, HGPs are used extensively in Northern Australia, which ships half of its beef offshore – or about 80 percent of Australia’s live beef exports.

The Food Sage’s Sydney-based butcher summed it up by saying Coles was using “scare tactics” because most Australians already consumed HGP-free beef, particularly those in the Southern states.

What’s to be scared about?

According to Meat and Livestock Australia’s website page on HGPs there is negligible difference in the hormone levels found in beef from cattle that have been given HGPs compared to cattle that have not. And because HGPs are supplements of naturally occurring hormones, they are safe for human consumption.

In 2003, Australia’s Department of Health and Ageing (Therapeutic Good Administration) said “there is unlikely to be any appreciable health risk to consumers”. But the very use of the word “unlikely” plants a seed of doubt. And the fact that the European Union banned the use of HGPs in 1988 over concerns about links to diseases fuels further distrust. The fact is,  adding hormones to meat is an emotive issue.  Online discussion of the issue shows that consumers link HGPs to everything from increased levels of obesity, to the lower age of puberty in girls, and so-called ‘man boobs’. Whether rightly or wrongly, consumers link HGPs to health concerns.

Coles hasn’t mentioned health concerns during its campaign. It doesn’t have to. By simply mentioning HGPs it has tapped consumer fears, which will no doubt work to its advantage.

Instead, Coles has skillfully played the ‘tender beef’ card. Purchasers of HGP-free beef will get meat that is more tender, right? Not necessarily.

A tender issue

The CSIRO report shows that hormonal treatment has a negative influence on the tenderness and eating quality of beef, findings which are supported a report by the Beef Cooperative Research Centre. However, HGP treatment affects some cuts more than others – namely the main grilling cuts, such as striploin, sirloin and scotch fillet. Harder working muscles such as oyster blade show almost no HGP effect on tenderness.

So oyster blade is likely to be no more tender simply because it is HGP-free. Similarly, a prime steak from an animal raised on hormone supplements could be just as tender as an HGP-free counterpart if it has been well aged.

There are also many other factors that influence the tenderness or beef, including the breed of the cattle, their age, the fat content, the stress levels of an animal pre-slaughter, how far it has travelled, how it is processed, and the way it is cooked. To say that HGP-free beef will be more tender – in isolation of these other factors – is simplifying a complicated issue.

Sceptism around Coles’ claims was summed up by Australian Beef Association chairman Brad Bellinger who told the AAP news service:

“Realistically, there’s no evidence to support the claim that their shoppers will get better tasting beef.”

The outcome

So if Coles cannot guarantee that its HGP-free beef is more tender and palatable, what has it achieved? First mover advantage, for one. As one comment posted to an online news report on the issues said:

“I didn’t realise that my family and I were eating beef treated with a hormone … Looks like I will be buying my beef from Coles in the near future.”

Another reader concurred:

“Well done Coles! I haven’t shopped in your stores for a very long time, but now you have my attention.”

Coles has also hit a nerve in the meat industry, which will suffer financially if other retailers follow Coles’ lead. The additional feed required by industry would put more strain on farmers. A larger national herd would also put greater pressure on the environment. The herd would have to increase from 28.04 million to 29.75 million to produce the same tonnage of HGP-free beef, according to the CSIRO report, which would produce more of the greenhouse gas methane.

Coles has not committed to stocking pasture-raised beef, which is likely to have had a happier, less stressful life. Nor has it not committed to sourcing beef that is chemical free. But it has reinvigorated debate around HGPs in the food chain, and for that it should be congratulated.

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Filed under Food Issues

14 responses to “Hormone-free beef: what’s the catch?

  1. Food Sage wrote: “Coles has not committed to stocking pasture-raised beef, which is likely to have had a happier, less stressful life. Nor has it not committed to sourcing beef that is chemical free.”

    If only Coles — or any supermarket — would commit to the above. Now THAT would be worth the squillions spent on advertising.


    • Hi Nicole,
      Thanks for your feedback. I think one of the interesting things about Coles’ announcement are the things it doesn’t say. And yeah, I wonder what the advertising bill is for all this!


  2. John Newton

    The real question to ask is, having dumped hormones, have they also dumped the routine administration of antibiotics?

    When the chicken farmers announced they were no longer using growth promotants, they forgot to tell us they were still using antibiotics – which have the same effect of plumping up the animal. While you’re on the case Rachel, ask about antibiotics.

    The chicken farmers are now slowly stopping their use


    • Good point, John. And thanks for the feedback. I suppose it’s a step in the right direction. It will be interesting to see where it goes from here.


      • An interesting post. It was good to stumble across it. We choose to buy organically certified beef (and fish) from our local West End markets (which interestingly costs less than at Coles) but are more than happy to pay a financial dividend if required i.e. more $ as a salve for our conscience about the beast leading a natural, grass munching life before being slaughtered. The steak undoubtedly tastes better (to us) too.

        A science journo and foodie blogger has written a well-researched post about the deleterious impact on the waistlines of his fellow Americans as a consequence of the addition of antibiotics added to the cattle feed. The information sources cited are authentic. I agree with John above that it would be interesting to ascertain what quantity of antibiotics Australians typically ingest through the food consumption chain, and what (if any) impact there may be on our burgeoning obesity levels. Here’s the antibiotics in food link http://notchbynotch.com/antibiotics-are-killing-us/


  3. Great post – I felt compelled to research the use of growth hormones in cattle when I saw the Coles ad too. But when I found out the amount of growth hormone used is comparable to say that found naturally in an egg, the marketer in me felt impressed by Coles’ use of scare tactics marketing and how it would change the behaviour of the masses who won’t do the research, whilst the consumer in me felt like I’d been duped. Either way, I’m now less likely to buy beef from Coles.


    • Hi Gourmet Forager! Thanks for joining in the debate. The marketing budgets of major retailers must be astronomical and I think it is a shame that small suppliers who have provided high-grade, HGP-free beef for years get are likely to be trampled into oblivion by those kinds of mass marketing extravaganzas. Should we support the big suppliers, who jump on the bandwagon? Or throw our consumer weight behind the little guys, who paved the way? And i agree with you about feeling duped!


  4. The main problem with supermarket steak (Coles or otherwise) is that it’s usually cut so thinly you could (to use my father’s words) read the newspaper through it.

    We buy our beef at a butcher for that very reason – we can pick out the thickest steaks (or have them cut for us). That, and we get to support a local, independent business.


    • Hi Alex,
      Thanks for your comments! My local butcher will also source less popular cuts for me that he doesn’t usually stock, and if i give him advance notice he will mince chicken for me, etc. If i’m buying rump steak and mention i am going to use it for barbecue skewers, he will chop it for me! And the last time i bought a shoulder or pork he scored the skin for that wonderful crackling i love so much. Local butchers are so much more than just retailers, they are fonts of knowledge and toolboxes of skillsets! Long live the local butcher!


  5. This is quite possibly a silly question, but how does one tell at a glance if a local butchery has sourced its meat from farmers with healthy ‘happier’ animals? Surely not the price tag alone… I’m assuming that there would be some who get their meat from the same suppliers used by the supermarkets.
    Perhaps the Food Sage could provide some tips for the less-wise carnivores!


    • Hi Nicole,
      Great question! I wish we could tell by looking at meat if the animal lived a stress-free, healthier, happier life – unfortunately this isn’t possible.
      But what we can do, is talk to the butcher. Ask him/her about their produce, where they source it from, is it local, organic, grass-fed, etc. How far do the animals have to travel to the abattoir? Who takes them to the abattoir – the farmer, a respected local driver who understands the farmer’s stress-free philosophy, or any Tom, Dick or Harry who shunts them around carelessly? If you butcher can supply the answers to these questions, they’re on top of their game. And if s/he can supply the right answers … then you’re on track to sourcing meat that comes from an animal that lived as stress-free a life as possible. The more we question our suppliers, the more we let them know what kind of produce we really want, and the more of us who do that, the more likely we are to change some of the practices down the supply chain. Good luck! And let us know what you find out!!


  6. Marisa

    Here in the U.S., consumers are beginning to demand labeling on packaged meat that tells of its treatment and provenance (beyond just saying ‘organic’ or ‘all-natural’). I think we’ve made great progress, but we still have a long way to go. Like you, we’re concerned with added hormones and antibiotics, as well as steroids. Is that the case in Australia?


  7. I happen to be in the very enviable position to be living in a country town. I know where ALL my food comes from, who grew it(if not me), who raised it, and where and when it was killed/picked. I have a cow for milk and chickens for eggs. These coles people and those like them are really just buffoons. hormones haven’t been in any meat locally since the late seventies. Cage free eggs are just that. From chickens not in a cage. BIg Deal. They’re still at least 6 weeks old before the shops have them on the shelf.
    People wonder why i chose to live in a regional area. It’s because it adds about thirty years to my life.


  8. David Milne

    An interesting post Rachel. It was good to stumble across it today. We choose to buy organically certified beef (and fish) from our local West End markets in Brisbane (which costs less than at Coles) but are more than happy to pay a financial dividend if required i.e. more $ as a salve for our conscience about the beast leading a natural, grass munching life before being slaughtered. We are not animal activists, just baby-boomers who remember that the meat of our youth was nutritious, flavoursome and slow-growing.

    I’d like to flag the following which is related to your post. Scott Anderson is an amusing American science journo and foodie who has written (after your blog) a well-researched post about the deleterious impact of antibiotics on the waistlines of his fellow Americans as a consequence of the addition of these drugs being added to cattle feed. His information sources appear dispassionate and authentic. I agree with your blog reader’s query (John) re antibiotics in our food. It would be interesting to ascertain what quantity of antibiotics Australians typically ingest through the food chain, and what (if any) impact there is on our burgeoning obesity levels. Here’s the link http://notchbynotch.com/antibiotics-are-killing-us/


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