Organic meat in question

You pay the price for organic meat, but can you be sure that what you're getting is the real deal?
 
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  • Updated:30 Jul 2009
 

01 .Introduction

Organic meat

In brief

  • In Australia anyone can use the term “organic”. The only way to be sure of a meat’s organic pedigree is to buy certified.
  • Look for the logo of certification bodies or ask the butcher who certifies the meat you’re buying. If they can’t tell you, or the meat seems incredibly cheap, it may not be certified organic.

Organic produce is a growing segment of the market, even in the midst of a global economic downturn. Retail value of the Australian organic market in 2008 was more than $600 million, with between 10% and 30% growth per annum for some sectors. And it seems organic meat producers are leading the way, with reports of record sales in recent months and a forecast of increasing market shares.

Organic meat is expensive to produce so you’d expect to pay a premium for it. You may also believe meat from free-range animals raised without the standard use of synthetic chemicals is worth the extra money. But how can you be sure you’re getting what you pay for?

CHOICE visited butchers in Sydney and Melbourne who advertise themselves as purveyors of organic meat to find out what they know about the meat they sell. We discovered that many spin an ill-informed line about their organic products. We also found that price is generally a good indicator of the real thing.

Please note: this information was current as of July 2009 but is still a useful guide today.


What makes meat organic?

Organic meat (including the soil and water management) must comply with the National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce. Among other requirements, the livestock must:

  • range freely on pasture;
  • not be given growth promoters (including antibiotics)
  • eat feed produced without synthetic pesticides
  • have no genetically modified inputs.

Why ‘certified’ label is key

To safeguard Australia’s organic export markets, the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) accredits a number of organisations to certify organic foods that comply with its National Standard for Organic and Bio-Dynamic Produce (see Logos to look for). Australian consumers benefit indirectly from this regulation. As you pay a premium for organic meat, you should know what you’re buying, and certified organic is the best guarantee you’ll get what you pay for.

If organic meat seems really cheap it’s reasonable to question its authenticity. If there’s no certified organic label, ask the retailer where it comes from and who certifies it. If they can’t or won’t tell you, then it may not be certified organic. It also helps to know what other gourmet meat descriptions mean.  

The future

Standards Australia is currently developing a standard for organic and biodynamic products. While this new standard won’t be mandatory it will provide clearer guidelines for enforcement agencies such as the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) enabling them to take action against misleading organic claims.

 

 
 

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In Australia, there’s no legislation for the term “organic”, which means there’s nothing to stop anyone from labelling their produce organic. The only way to ensure something is organic is to check it is certified by one of the AQIS-approved organic certifying bodies, see Logos to Look for, below.

Of the 42 outlets CHOICE surveyed that appeared to sell “organic” meat, 13 either sell organic produce but not meat, or the meat they sell isn’t actually organic (they seem to think free-range or hormone-free and organic beef are the same). Only 29 told us they sell certified organic beef so we focused on these.

Who certifies it?

Once we’d established the butcher was selling certified organic beef, we asked the straightforward question, “Who certifies it?”. Only 11 of 29 retailers answered correctly. Seven didn’t know or couldn’t reply directly but referred our buyers to certification logos on brochures or posters displayed on the wall.

Eight gave an incorrect or muddled answer. For example:

  • One butcher replied, “Enviroganic Farm”, which is actually a supplier of certified organic produce, not a certifier.
  • Another answered, “Rural Organics”, an organisation that assists farmers, processors and exporters with their entry into the organic and biodynamic markets.
  • A third said, “the RSPCA”, but the RSPCA Approved Farming Scheme is specific to animal welfare. None of these are organic certifying bodies.
The final three retailers had no information at all about who certifies their organic beef, which raises the question: is the meat on sale at these butchers really certified organic?

According to our buyers, only about half the retailers seemed knowledgeable about organics. Generally, these butchers were able to tell our buyers where their beef came from and/or who certified it, and in some cases volunteered additional information about organic meat – the difference between organic and conventionally farmed meat, its certification requirements and its supposed nutritional benefits.

About two-thirds of the retailers gave our buyers the impression they were confident of what they were telling them, but unfortunately they weren’t always passing on accurate information. The butchers who assured our buyers that the RSPCA, Enviroganic Farm and Rural Organics are organic certifying bodies are three such examples.

Organic logos

Organic food is often expensive because production is more labour-intensive and, without herbicides, pesticides and other chemicals the yield (for crops, specifically) is generally lower than for conventional foods.

We found prices for the same cut of meat can vary widely from butcher to butcher, so it’s worth shopping around. Beware of very cheap organic meat, however, as there’s a good chance it’s not certified or organic. We suspect this was the case with some of the rump steak we bought at bargain basement prices.  

What does it cost?

Here's a summary of the prices we saw:

  • The average price for organic rump was about $35 per kilo and ranged up to $69 per kilo, but a few butchers sold it to us for about $23 per kilo. Despite assuring us the beef was certified, these butchers couldn’t tell us who certified their meat and didn’t have any brochures or posters displaying certification information.
  • The most expensive organic meat we saw was for New York steak at $89 per kilo, although about $42 per kilo for this cut was more common. 
  •  Organic chicken breast fillets cost between $24.90 and $42.90 per kilo.

Supermarket organic meat

One thing’s certain: organic meat does cost more than conventionally produced meat. When CHOICE last looked at organic food we found you could pay half as much again for organic beef in supermarkets as you would for conventional beef ($30.50-$35 per kilo for organic scotch fillet compared with $20-$27 per kilo for conventional; $14-$15 per kilo for organic mince compared with $10-$12 per kilo for conventional). A recent price comparison of organic and conventional beef at Coles and Woolworths online shopping sites showed a similar price difference.

Woolworths

Woolworths’ own brand of organic meat is certified by the Australian Certified Organic (ACO) scheme. The main suppliers of organic meat to Woolworths are Cleavers The Organic Meat Company and Brismeat (a Woolworths subsidiary). A Woolworths’ spokesperson told us “both suppliers are required to maintain standards specified by the ACO as well as Woolworths’ internal quality control policy”.

Coles

Coles is a certified retailer under the ACO scheme, which means the chain of custody for its organic products goes all the way from the farm to its shelves, but information about its organic suppliers is commercially confidential. “We are very serious about our organic meats and take all appropriate steps to ensure our organic meat is authentic, certified and traceable for our customers,” says a Coles spokesperson. “We have ACO check these certifications and our customers can trust the certification logo and retailer number.”  

Traceability

ACO certification labels display a code number specific to the food product’s processor (such as Cleavers) or retailer (Coles). If you have any queries relating to a particular batch of meat, you can find the name and contact details for that processor or retailer by doing a product search on the ACO website.

 

The following words or descriptions are often used in association with gourmet-type meats on product packaging as well as restaurant menus, but what do they really mean and is their use regulated?

Angus is a cattle breed developed in Scotland in the late 1700s. It has a smooth, close-grained texture, carnation red colour and finely marbled fat within the lean muscle. Certified Australian Angus Beef (CAAB) is an industry quality assurance program – by buying products carrying the CAAB logo you’re guaranteed Angus genetics and beef produced to exacting specifications.

Bio-dynamic farmers use a form of organic agriculture that places strong emphasis on ecological harmony and environmental sustainability and treats the farm as a total organism. Bio-dynamic food is grown with particular composts, preparations and natural activating substances.

Grain-fed animals are kept in a feedlot for at least 100 days and fed for a minimum of 80 days on a nutritionally balanced, high energy grain-based feed. This uniform feeding regime results in a consistent meat and fat colour, and often high levels of marbling. Minimum standards and certification for grain-fed beef are administered through the National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme and audited by AUS-MEAT, the industry body responsible for establishing and maintaining national standards for meat production and processing.

Marble score This is the grading of intramuscular fat (also known as marbling) in beef. The higher the score, the more intramuscular fat – in Australia, marble scores range from 1 to 9+. Marbling has a positive effect on eating quality in many high value cuts, where often the higher the marble score the better the product and the higher the price it sells for. But it’s possible to achieve good eating quality without marbling.

MSA graded Meat Standards Australia (MSA) is a consumer-based eating quality assurance program that grades beef and sheep meat (three, four or five star) and recommends a cooking method. More than 70,000 consumers have participated in MSA testing, providing scores on 520,000 beef samples from 52,000 individual cuts to establish the standards. Program participants (from meat brands and processors through to retailers and restaurants) are licensed to use the MSA trademark and certify products via an approved quality management system in accordance with MSA standards.

Pasture-fed animals are raised on open grazing land with access to water and supplemental feed, comprising a mix of grasses. It’s promoted as a more natural alternative to grain-assisted feeding programs. All certified organic beef is pasture-fed.

Wagyu is a group of cattle breeds from Japan that is genetically predisposed to intense marbling – higher fat content – and has a higher percentage of the healthier unsaturated fat than any other cattle breed in the world. Wagyu beef is increasingly seen in restaurants, butchers and grocers around Australia and is considered a luxury item – you can reportedly pay up to $250 per kilo for the best cuts and 9+ marble scores.

Currently in Australia, beef can be labelled “Wagyu” with only 50% Wagyu genetics (known in the industry as a Crossbreed or F1). The industry’s Australian Wagyu Association runs a certification system that identifies commercial cattle sired by registered full-blood or purebred Wagyu sires.

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