BEEF served with sustainability credentials is attracting a growing segment of the consumer market, and one willing to pay a premium, but it will always have to be underpinned by eating quality.
So say those behind the first major Australian supermarket certified own-brand carbon neutral beef product.
Coles launched the brand, Coles Finest, in April. It includes seven premium quality cuts of beef, from eye fillet to porterhouse steak.
So far, it is supplied by ten producers and has only been available in Victorian stores, but the plan is to roll it out nationally within six months. Coles is already in discussion with suppliers in other states.
Coles senior beef livestock procurement manager Stephen Rennie said he could see the program growing enormously.
Just how many suppliers it might take on would depend on consumer support, he said.
"Carbon neutral is an element a growing segment of the market is demanding but I must stress - it has to come with eating quality. That is an absolute non-negotiable," Mr Rennie said.
"Our ability to deliver consistent eating quality using the MSA (Meat Standards Australia) model, no matter the season, will underpin the growth of the brand."
Mr Rennie was part of a panel speaking on trading in a sustainability-conscious world at this week's Australian Meat Processor Corporation conference in Melbourne.
Asked what was behind the launch of the carbon neutral brand, he said as a retailer Coles wanted to position itself as Australia's most sustainable.
"With the red meat industry setting it's CN30 target, we started to ask how are we going to help our producers to meet that goal," he said.
"We also want to give our customers choice."
The beef range is certified carbon neutral from paddock to shelf to the Australian Government's Climate Active standard.
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The ground work
In the two years leading up to the launch, Coles worked hand-in-hand with its beef farmers who would supply the label to help calculate and reduce their emissions. That resulted in their emissions being 19 per cent below the Australian national average.
"We actually picked some suppliers we thought might be a challenge," Mr Rennie said.
"It's no good just signing up the early adopters and not being able to bring everyone else along as the brand grows.
"Where there is a highly productive farm really concerned with MSA grading and eating quality, the initial thinking was they weren't going to measure well on carbon neutrality but in reality it was the opposite.
"What we've actually discovered is where there is super efficiency, there is a good CN result."
Coles also worked with agriculture systems scientist Dr Stephen Wiedemann, Integrity Ag, who also spoke at the AMPC conference.
Dr Wiedemann studied innovative ways tree planting and vegetation can help reduce net carbon emissions on beef farms through carbon sequestration.
Carbon stored in trees is then included in the farm's 'carbon account' and reduces the overall emissions associated with the farm's production - a process known as carbon insetting, in which the process of reducing emissions is carried out at or directly related to their source.
Coles was the first to pilot insetting as part of the Climate Active program.
"The Coles carbon neutral beef initiative, and the information we have gained along the way about how we can reduce carbon emissions on farms through better herd performance and tree planting, will be invaluable to farmers everywhere," Dr Wiedemann said.
Coles also purchases Australian Carbon Credit Units from the Armoobilla Regeneration Project in south-west Queensland to cover emissions that fall outside the scope of the insetting measures, such as those involved in processing and transporting the beef to stores, ensuring that the range achieves carbon neutral status.
Suppliers were doing extensive work in changing practices to lower emissions and the ultimate would be that Coles does not have to buy any offsets to maintain the carbon neutral certification, Mr Rennie said.
"That would be the ideal, if it is possible within our supply chain," he said.
Dr Wiedemann said one of barriers to CN food brands was that it takes five years to generate a soil or vegetation carbon credit.
"So it would be about seven years from inception to hitting the shelves if any brand wanted to do it only by buying from CN farmers," he said.
"It is better to start by pulling emissions from other farmers, buying offsets - all the time engaging producers and getting them on the journey," Dr Wiedemann said.
"We are content that Australian farmers as a whole are way beyond carbon neutral. There is alot of action on the ground, a lot of adoption of new practices but at his point they just can't prove their CN status."
All in the story
Mr Rennie explained there were three key parts to Coles' program - measure, reduce and then offset.
"It's the reduce part that's most interesting because this is where the stories are that we can bring to our consumers," he said.
"The stories we put around it are critical."
The consumer reaction had surprised him somewhat, he said.
"I had in my mind the demographic that would buy this product might be a more senior shareholder-type person but it is dominated by the younger generation," he said.
"They want quality, an Australian product and are very high on environmental credentials. And they are happy to pay for it."
His advice for others considering a CN beef brand?
"Start the conversation," Mr Rennie said.
"It has amazed us how many producers have come to us since we launched this."
Dr Wiedemann said the beauty of a CN food brand was it gave the consumer the power to act, to make a choice.
"It's very easy, particularly with the livestock sector, for society to say to the industry this or that is wrong, you fix it," he said.
"This is giving them the ability to pay for what they are demanding, and therefore drive change."