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Food composition data in the promotion of lean meat in Australia

L. Fantini

Luisa Fantini is Manager — Nutrition and Education, Australian Meat & Live-stock Corporation, GPO Box 4129, Sydney NSW 2001.

Beef and lamb have long played a part in both Australia's rural industry and in the eating habits of Australians. The introduction of cattle and sheep by the first fleet in 1788, the opening of pasture land in western NSW and the success of grazing livestock led to beef and mutton becoming staple items in the diet of early Australians (Symons 1984). In those early years, the relative abundance of meat and its low price could well have created an attitude towards red meat as a favoured food item, an attitude that was to last many years (Clements 1986). Given this attitude, it is not surprising that beef and lamb continue to play a major, albeit less dominant role in the current Australian diet. Until comparatively recently, it was considered unnecessary to spend a great deal of time, effort and money promoting meat to Australians, and until the early 1980s the major role of the Australian Meat and Live-stock Corporation (AMLC), formerly the Australian Meat Board, was to promote the export of Australian meats and livestock.

Changing food preferences

In 1984–5, comprehensive market research (McKinna & others 1984, The Campaign Palace 1985) painted a very dismal picture of Australian consumer attitudes towards beef and lamb. No single factor could be isolated as solely responsible for the move away from red meat, but rather, a number of inter-related factors emerged identifying marketing problems which needed to be overcome, as they added up to a fundamental lack of consumer confidence in the product:

Perception of inconsistency of both price and quality.

Common concerns and complaints were quality variation, from week-to-week or retailer-to-retailer, and inexplicable sharp rises and falls in price;

Competitive protein sources. Chicken, fish, vegetarian meals and the Pritikin diet had all infiltrated the Australian diet;

Trading hours. The inability to purchase red meat during all normal retail trading hours in most States was cited as a major disadvantage, particularly by working women, whereas competitive protein foods such as chicken and fish could always be readily purchased;

Lack of convenience. Consumers regarded red meat as messy and time-consuming to prepare. It did not meet the needs of working women who preferred quick, convenient foods which reduced time and effort in the kitchen;

Poor merchandising. By comparison with most other food categories there was nothing new happening in the area of retail presentation;

Nutrition. Concern was expressed about nutritional aspects, ie excessive fat, cholesterol, kilojoules, and the vague and undefined feeling that “too much red meat isn't good for you”;

Ethnic foods. Fashion in food was being created by a surge of new restaurants featuring different, exciting and varied cuisines, very few of which included red meat;

Lifestyle changes. Red meat was not seen as contemporary or fitting into the modern lifestyle. The traditional family Sunday dinner of roast and three vegetables was no longer appropriate as meals were often served on the run;

Lighter meals. Red meat was seen, particularly by women, as too heavy and indigestible in contrast to the many light alternatives available;

Lack of variety. The product was seen as lacking in variety, with very little novelty; in short, dull and boring.

A number of marketing strategies were undertaken to counteract these problems, particularly in the area of advertising and merchandising, but effective response to the nutrition controversy was hampered by a lack of up-to-date data on the fat and cholesterol content of meat. In addition, the only data on the fat contribution made by meat to the diet was apparent consumption data (ABS 1986). This indicated that meat as available provided around 37% of the fat in the diet. In reality, meat as consumed contributed much less. This is because apparent consumption statistics generally overestimate fat contribution by not taking into account the loss of fat from the carcase during the preparation of retail cuts (Fantini & MacDonald 1987). Media reports on health and popular nutrition paperbacks (mainly based on US meat data) created a perception of beef and lamb as less than optimal protein sources for today's consumer. This perception was equally common amongst health professionals, as evidenced by the fact that only recently was “chicken (no skin)” incorporated as standard advice into nutrition education materials produced by an independent health authority (Australian Nutrition Foundation 1989). Until now, the advice has been “lean meat, poultry, fish”, incorrectly indicating that poultry was already lean and thus acceptable.

The industry was aware that the unwarranted criticism of the fat and cholesterol content of beef and lamb came from a lack of knowledge of Australian meat composition and its production, such as: that meat composition (in terms of fat and cholesterol) could vary from country to country; that Australia's meat production techniques (essentially pasturerearing) generally favoured the production of lean, non-marbled meats; that grain-feeding or lot-feeding is not as extensively used in Australia as it is in the USA, and as a result marbling is practically non-existent in Australian beef as compared to US beef; and, that improvements had been made by the industry, such as the introduction in the 1960s and 70s of European breeds which favoured carcases of a lower total fat cover.

The employment of dietitians by the AMLC in 1984–5 was seen by the industry as a vital step towards the dissemination of accurate nutrition information on beef and lamb. Therefore, the attainment of up-to-date data on the composition of beef and lamb became the first priority.

Meat composition data

The existing official food composition tables for Australia (Thomas & Corden 1977) did not reflect the meats Australians were consuming in the 1980s but were based on British, American and/or 40-year-old Australian data. The out-of-date and non-applicable data contributed to the strong perception that red meat consumption meant a high fat intake and therefore a high health risk, whereas white meat (eg fish or chicken) was nutritionally more desirable (Chris Adams Research 1986).

Despite the concern regarding the nutrient composition of red meat and its effects on the nutrient intake of Australians, no new data became available until the mid 1980s. The first available data came from the work of Sinclair and O'Dea (1987). Their final report to the Australian Meat Research Committee in 1986 (subsequently published in 1987) showed that the average lean intramuscular fat content of beef cuts was 3.1%, with a range from 1% to 11% over 460 samples. Lean lamb intramuscular fat content was around 4.6% on average with a range of 2.6% to 12.3% over 36 samples. These figures were lower than those published in the existing official food tables (Thomas & Corden 1977) for lean boneless beef (6.6%) and lean boneless lamb (6.3%). The work of Sinclair & O'Dea (1987) was also the first to supply information on the fatty acid profile of lean meats. There had been a strong perception that not only was red meat high in fat but it was also high in saturated fat with little or no polyunsaturated or monosaturated fatty acids present. Their results showed that lean beef contained major amounts of oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid (27–44% of total fatty acids) and significant amounts of the polyunsaturated fatty acids, linoleic, linolenic and arachidonic.

Sinclair and O'Dea (1987) also revealed little or no difference in the intramuscular fat content of grain-vs grassfed beef, even when comparing carcases of two different fat cover depths. This work indicated that unless significant marbling was present, the grain-fed beef generally available on the Australian domestic market was similar in fat content (around 4%) to pasture fed meats, once selvedge fat was removed. This contrasts sharply with US grain-fed beef which has a minimum fat content of 9%.

This work was supplemented by research conducted at CSIRO by Thornton and co-workers (1987) who examined the fat content of popular cuts of meat, raw and cooked, including T-bone, rump, blade and topside, lamb loin chops, rolled lamb shoulder roasts, as well as fresh and frozen chickens, whole and as chicken pieces. These results showed that some portions of chicken were higher in fat relative to beef or lamb, even after the removal of chicken skin. It was clear that only skinless chicken breast at 3% fat (raw) was lower in fat than the four beef cuts examined. Therefore, lean beef and lamb, trimmed of visible fat, could not be condemned as high fat foods.

These initial results from separate research groups considerably aided the AMLC in promoting the nutritional benefits of beef and lamb in a more specific manner. However, the AMLC refrained from any major advertising activities as release of official research on the nutrient composition of meats was imminent. These data were to further consolidate the findings of Sinclair and O'Dea (1987) and Thornton and co-workers (1987).

The publication of those official data from the work of Greenfield, Truswell and co-workers on the composition of Australian meats and poultry (Greenfield 1987) allowed the AMLC to implement its marketing activities fully promoting the nutritional benefits of beef and lamb. These data and the newly revised and released official food composition tables (Cashel & others 1989) form the basis for all current activities of the AMLC in the promotion of the nutritional benefits of beef and lamb.

Recently, further analytical work by the Australian Government Analytical Laboratories (AGAL) in Adelaide was carried out in conjunction with AMLC participation in the National Heart Foundation's Food Approval Program. Results indicated that all cuts submitted satisfied the NHF's guideline of less than 10% fat. Cholesterol and fat data were similar to those of Greenfield, Truswell and co-workers (Greenfield 1987). These data add further weight to the argument that lean meat, trimmed of visible fat, is a low fat food.

Advertising using meat composition data

The AMLC's concept of “lean meat” is a central marketing tool in the promotion of beef and lamb in the 1980s and 90s. “Lean meat” is readily identified by consumers as “new meat” (AMLC 1988a) and thus meets their needs for convenience, variety, and lighter, more nutritious meals, in contrast to “old meat” which is fatty and lacking in variety.

Over the past four years there has been a meat retail revolution in Australia. Today, meat in butcher shops and supermarkets is different, ie it is leaner, often pre-prepared, and visually stimulating. This is partly the result of a single-minded marketing and advertising strategy called Short Cuts focused on quick, easy-to-prepare, nutritious whole meat meals complete with vegetables and cereals. The advertising and merchandising campaign established lean meat as the hero for the busy working woman looking for a solution to the evening meal dilemma. In 1988–89 the Short Cuts proposition was expanded to include more traditional meals but with a modern touch. These are the Today's Steak and Lamb Roast campaigns. Again, the feature is lean meat in complete meals, eg lean steaks and lean roasts. In its mainstream advertising the AMLC was already concerned with promoting lean meat and had spent a great deal of time, effort and money establishing in consumers' minds that beef and lamb, trimmed of fat, were nutritious and convenient, fulfilling a contemporary need for modern women.

The release of the publication The nutrient composition of Australian meats and poultry (Greenfield 1987) heralded the start of a new and aggressive campaign to re-position lean beef as a low-fat food with a deserved place in the Australian diet. Three TV commercials were created in the 12 months following the release of the publication: Weigh Out, Pasta and Potatoes and Jane Flemming.

The first, Weigh Out, comparing a lean beef meal with a roast chicken meal stirred much passion amongst health professionals and stimulated consumers to seek much needed information. As previously discussed, the perception of beef (and consequently lamb) being unhealthy was rife in the early 1980s. Market research (Chris Adams Research 1986) had indicated that consumer perception of chicken as a healthy food was all embracing. It was seen as nutritionally superior to beef, and by consequence, lamb. While Australians were acquiring the habit of fat-trimming beef (having associated beef with a high fat, high cholesterol diet) substantially fewer people understood that chicken with skin was also a culprit in a high fat diet. In fact the 1983 dietary survey of adults (Cashel & others 1986) indicated that removing beef fat was more common amongst respondents (70%) than removing chicken skin (30%). Further, having positioned lean meat as its central marketing tool, the AMLC could not logically use anything other than lean meat depicted as fully trimmed of fat, in its new phase of nutrition advertising, using the new meat composition data.

Advertising, if it is to be successful must evoke emotion. It is not truly designed to be educational. While Weigh Out was indeed based on facts, the real success of the commercial lay in the emotional response from consumers and health professionals alike, it challenged people's established beliefs. It was designed to make people search out more information. Nutrition education is complex, but advertising must encapsulate a single idea in a 30-second message. That single idea was that chicken, in its commonly consumed form (with skin), contained more fat and cholesterol than consumers may have thought and is no magic food. The commercial also established the idea that lean beef is not fatty and full of cholesterol but instead compared well to the consumer's benchmark of a low-fat protein food, chicken. As a result of the debate which raged after the commercial's airing, consumers now understand that eating chicken with skin is nutritionally no better than eating red meat with the fat.

The Pasta and Potatoes and Jane Flemming commercials, whilst less controversial, also relied on new meat composition data for the claims for fat, iron and vitamins.

The current food tables (Cashel & others 1989) and NUTTAB (Commonwealth Department of Health & Community Services 1989) depict four levels of trim for beef, lamb and pork: lean only, 75% trimmed, 50% trimmed and as purchased (ie with all fat as purchased at retail). The AMLC on the other hand, in its advertising and general promotional activities, uses lean only data primarily. Health professionals should be aware that the levels of trim indicated in the tables have been arbitrarily selected by nutritionists within the Department as representing current levels of fat trimming by Australians. Health professionals should also be aware that the compositional data for these levels of trim are derived by calculation and not by analysis. Several studies (Cashel & others 1986, Worsley & Crawford 1985) have now indicated that fat-trimming of meat is standard practice, although none of these studies have quantified the amount of fat trimmed. The AMLC believes that consumers understand the concept of lean meat as being trimmed of all visible fat.

In addition, these arbitrary trim levels are dependent on the amount of fat originally present on the cut when purchased. Thus, traditional lamb cuts, usually purchased with all fat attached since some states regulate to prevent the removal of the lamb pink branding at point of sale, are considerably higher in fat content at the 75% trim and 50% trim levels than beef, yet lean only data for fat content of beef and lamb are not dissimilar.

The effect of plate waste (more fat trimming on the plate) must also be considered for lamb in particular. This aberration should be taken into account when these tables and the NUTTAB data base are used by health professionals.

Nutrition education using meat composition data

Many other important and ongoing educational activities of the AMLC also rely on the new compositional data, and aim to cement these nutritional facts in the minds of consumers and health professionals alike.

In 1985, the AMLC entered its new phase of nutrition education. Materials were of a general nature, positioning lean beef and lamb as important components of a balanced diet and incorporating the general dietary advice of less fat, more fibre. However, the release of the revised meat composition data enabled such material to contain more specific information on beef and lamb, and their contribution to the Australian diet.

The AMLC's Meat, the facts brochure (AMLC 1988b) is a good example. A publication of this type could not have been produced three or four years ago, as official meat data were not then available. Recently, the AMLC has undertaken the Meat, the facts program for general practitioners to give them accurate information on the fat and cholesterol content of beef and lamb while reminding them of the iron, zinc, protein and B vitamins provided by these foods. This activity has included general mailing of materials to GPs, seminars in major capital cities on the nutritional facts about meat, and the production of medical press advertisements. Revised meat composition data as well as the release of the reports from the dietary survey (Cashel & others 1986, English & others 1987) have been crucial to this activity.

Other AMLC activities relying on these composition data include the calculation of fat and energy in recipes specifically designed for the health conscious, as in the AMLC's Healthy food for healthy hearts booklet (AMLC 1988c) and in the slimmers section of the new Short Cuts 2 cookbook (Murdoch Magazines/AMLC 1989). Further, AMLC's participation in the Australian Nutrition Foundation's Nutrition Time 89 program featured editorial copy based on lean lamb composition data. Similarly, participation in the National Heart Foundation's Food Approval Program (Haddy 1990) has only been possible because of the knowledge of the fat content of lean, trimmed meat.


It is clear that the AMLC's promotional activities for beef and lamb rely heavily on new meat composition data. The AMLC has been single-minded in its depiction, both visually and in print, of lean meat as a central marketing concept. The release of these new food tables should further assist both the food industry and health professionals to get information about food to consumers. However, care needs to be taken by health professionals in the interpretation and use of meat data as presented in the new food tables.


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Australian Meat & Live-stock Corporation. 1988a. Meat marketing trends. Sydney: AMLC.

Australian Meat & Live-stock Corporation. 1988b. Meat, the facts. Sydney: AMLC.

Australian Meat & Live-stock Corporation. 1988c. Healthy food for healthy hearts. Sydney: AMLC.

Australian Nutrition Foundation. 1989. Nutrition Time. Sydney: ANF.

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