The supermarket company's quality assurance manager Jackie Healing told guests at the Rural Press Club in Brisbane last week that beef was the critical ingredient in driving more sales through its checkouts, currently standing at about 11 million transactions from the 14 million customers who enter Coles' 744 stores nationwide each week.
Ms Healing, who came to Coles from her UK base in similar roles with supermarket chain Sainsburys and food manufacturer Batchelors, said it had been part of her mission to revive the fortunes of Coles when she joined the Australian-owned company in 2006.
She said conditions were so bad at the ailing retailer of the time, burdened by debt and a dysfunctional board, that she was ashamed to admit where she worked.
"Coles was a mess. It was broken and it didn't deliver for consumers," she said.
"It was in a spiral of decline, where it was continually in a cycle of losing customers and would therefore cut costs by downgrading quality, which in turn just drove more customers out the door and then the cycle would start again.
"We call this the 'doom loop'."
Under the guidance of new owner Wesfarmers from 2007, Coles is now the world's fastest growing retailer, employing 100,000 people, offering 40,000 individual items for sale and registering as the second most recognised brand in Australia behind Apple computers.
The key to the turnaround, Ms Healing said, was the supermarket's beef offer as the primary protein meal item, which then extends to other fresh food items.
"If you haven't got fresh quality beef, you don't have a proposition to offer people to entice them into your store," she said.
"We very much see beef as capturing the 'centre of the plate'. If you are able to capture the centre of the plate with beef, then you will capture the rest of the shopping basket, which per customer is worth about $85 to us."
While on the surface Coles' focus on beef as its key sales driver might spell good news for producers down the supply chain on-farm, the retailer is also sending some mixed signals about where it may take quality assurance in the future to meet the demands of its ever-expanding customer base.
As the accompanying image shown during Ms Healing's presentation demonstrates, Coles markets its products according to a prescribed 'hierarchy' of customer needs.
Among these are whether Coles can guarantee to its customers that the food it sells is safe and nutritious, has been ethically produced, and hasn't hurt people, animals or the environment in the process.
Ms Healing said the only way to deliver on that promise to customers was to know the intimate details of the whole supply chain, suggesting farmers might have to consider mounting closed circuit TV cameras on their farms so retailers could assure customers that their food had been humanely produced from paddock to plate.
Her stance was immediately applauded by Animals Australia activist Lyn White after the comments were reported in The Australian, but criticised by farm groups who called it an invasion of privacy and lacking common sense.
Ms Healing's comments sent Coles communications department into damage control, with the company quickly denouncing the idea but reaffirming its commitment to transparency in the supply chain.
Ms Healing also referred to Coles' involvement with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), specifically in the Marine Stewardship program, an initiative run by the green activist organisation to impose production guidelines on suppliers of seafood to Coles in the name of environmental sustainability.
Earlier this year, WWF attracted attention for its Roundtable for Sustainable Beef Australia, which has garnered support from various corporate partners, all pivotal to the Australian beef industry supply chain.
Unlike major beef customer McDonald's, Coles is not a member of the beef roundtable, but does participate in another WWF roundtables, such as the roundtable for sustainable palm oil.
Author and Institute of Public Affairs director Tim Wilson said WWF was now active in trying to push supermarket chains into adopting more of its roundtable initiatives, particularly in the area of forestry products and beef.
"WWF is a very clever organisation that works with retailers to push these costs down the supply chain," Mr Wilson said.
"Coles is sending very strong messages that it is keen to push these changes and costs down the supply chain where most of the obligation and cost sits with the farmer at the end who has to pay for what supermarkets want, while at the other end supermarkets use the changes they've imposed in their brand positioning to leverage further sales."
Mr Wilson said Coles had already shown that it was prepared to heavily influence how beef was produced after its decision last year to ban the use of hormone growth promotants (HGPs) in cattle destined for its meat halls.
Producers maintain the ban is still costing them upwards of $30 per head in extra time for cattle on feed, a figure that's not likely to go down as grain prices continue to rise.
Ms Healing said the HGP-free position had been a winning formula for beef sales, bringing an estimated one million more customers to the category.
"It was a good decision and we're more than comfortable with it," she said.
"We don't see any need to change that model because it's worked very well for us."
Last week, figures released by MLA through Nielsen research showed Coles pegging back the market share lead of its main supermarket retail rival Woolworths, which positions its beef offer with the trademark of MSA eating quality assurance.
For the rolling quarter ended July 7, Coles increased 0.3pc to 26.5pc of all retail beef sales, compared to Woolworths' 30.2pc, a drop of 0.5pc since the last survey was taken.