Coles told me today, that their push to stock only hormone-free, free-range meat is a marketing ploy. “It’s what consumers want!” Woolworths will not be following suit.

Would you walk over it?

Coles spokesman Jim Cooper admitted to being swayed by consumer demand on animal welfare. “You bet!” says he said today, answering  claims that their move to hormone-free, free-range meat is a marketing ploy. “It’s what consumers want!”

But he dismissed claims made by some meat producers on this site that the exercise was a “cynical ploy”.

“By far the majority of calls and customer responses we get to any issue – including price cuts, or what products we stock – is animal welfare. People want hormone-free, ethically reared, free-range animals and the calls and feedback on this issue never stop.

He told me that: “Initially we chose hormone-free meat because of the taste and quality,” a point which renowned chef, owner of Rockpool, Neil Perry, passionately agrees with.

“But it was clear from our switchboards that consumers wanted the whole deal, hormone-free, compassionately-raised animals, sow stalls phased out, but they don’t want to have to pay more. So we are listening and not passing on costs to them rather absorbing it ourselves.”

And it’s working. Last month Coles owner Wesfarmers reported a seven per cent rise in quarterly sales in its supermarket chain as reported in the Media.

Jump in Sales at Coles

Coles managing director, Ian McLeod, said: ‘‘Coles has responded by removing added hormones in our beef, moving to phase out caged eggs by 2013 and moving to phase out sow stall pork by 2014. Higher levels of trust in quality and sourcing programs have been rewarded with higher levels of fresh food sales as a result.”

A spokesman for Woolworths, Benedict Brook, told me that their strategy was not to switch to hormone-free meat rather offer consumers a choice to buy it in a limited range. He said that Woolies strategy to slash prices of regular meat was also leading to higher sales of meats across the board, and that at this stage there was no need to change focus. I referred him to our comments.

Because as most of the 600-plus comments posted on this website have indicated, animal welfare is an issue that consumers feel very strongly about. And many — including myself — are prepared to vote with their feet over! Especially as consumers become more educated about the ethical and health issues involved in meat rearing.

As one blogger wrote, “If you can get ethically-raised, hormone-free meat at a similar price, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Mr Cooper dismissed claims by some farmers on this site that Coles is imposing rules on the local industry that it does not impose on overseas suppliers of smallgoods.

“Firstly 100 per cent of our fresh beef, chicken, and pork are from home grown sources. Smallgoods make up perhaps 20 per cent of our total meat sales and of this we take a percentage from abroad. As for where we are getting our meat from, there are all sorts of spurious claims, but the vast majority comes from Europe and Canada where they are already phasing out sow stalls. We have asked them to comply with the same standards we are giving the local industry – to phase out sow stalls by 2014. Added hormones (HGPs) are already banned in Europe.

Coles buys 6 per cent of all local meat products per year, which is why the issue is of significance to the farming industry. But Cooper says: “With regards to us imposing onerous conditions on our industry, it’s simply not true. Coles has in fact been working closely with producers over the past two years to ensure there was a system that was equitable and did not cause any damage to their businesses.

“We acknowledge producers’ claims that it costs more to produce hormone-free meat and we have come forward with an offer to pay more for their meat, and not pass the cost on to consumers.”

I would like to hear responses to this story, especially from the farming community and our producers who have contributed significantly to this debate – Ruth Ostrow