FROM the outside, a rustic old sea container, parked near a big tin shed at the Teys Australia Jindalee feedlot near Springdale in Southern NSW last week during a producers’ information day, appeared banal, outdated and bereft of any futuristic cargo.
But that deceptive exterior hid the high-tech contents, configured inside the one-time shipping box, which could help overcome some of the biggest political headaches and commercial challenges confronting Australia’s $17 billion sheep and cattle industry.
And those lurking dilemmas are also attracting some unwanted and escalating political attention for the red meat sector.
Mistrust between producers and meat processors - due to unreliable and inconsistent pricing and grading methods - has been exposed and critically examined during the federal Senate’s ongoing inquiry into competition concerns impacting the red meat supply chain.
The Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport References Committee is set to deliver the final report from its investigation on June 15 which may recommend a compulsory industry code of conduct, unless supply chain issues can be resolved independently.
But the pathway towards improved trust and understanding between the red meat sector’s traditional sparring partners, through objective carcase measurement, has already been cited as a potential peace-keeping solution, by implementing Dual-Energy X-Ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) technology.
Teys Australia opened the doors to modern progress at last week’s cattle producer workshop, in showcasing DEXA technology which it has been trialling within that fading and slightly dented old sea container.
The purpose-built trial DEXA machine was developed by Scott Technology and has been based in Melbourne during the innovation’s initial testing phases.
A dedicated DEXA room is now being built at the Teys beef processing plant at Rockhampton in Queensland and is set to be launched for use in standard commercial production, in August.
Most producers attending the Jindalee workshop witnessed the technology in action for the first time - but it’s already being used in Australia at the JBS lamb processing plant at Bordertown in South Australia.
While nobody asked any questions about DEXA’s future or potential roadblocks at the end of Teys Australia corporate services general manager Tom Maguire’s formal presentation during the Jindalee information day, a quiet air of anticipation seems to be building throughout industry ranks, around the concept’s evolution.
DEXA technology has been used in the medical industry since 1987 to help measure the bone density of patients and more recently in airport security scanners used for checking passengers.
Mr Maguire said dual band x-ray technology was also being tested-out as a kind of “next generation” application for use in airport security baggage scanning, to help keep terrorists out of Europe.
But DEXA’s potential, to enhance current methods for analysing and measuring the meat, fat and bone contents of a carcase or lean meat yield - the accuracy of which can sometimes be hindered by human frailty or at least raise natural suspicions - have been realised and adopted in more recent years, by the meat processing sector globally.
Improved pace and accuracy for measuring meat yield and the enhanced profitability of using the sophisticated dual x-ray technology, have largely underpinned its commercial implementation, including better returns at the farm-gate.
“That machine out there in a box that’s the first DEXA that’s being used in the beef industry at the moment,” Mr Maguire told the large gathering of producers and industry members.
Inside, the sea container was divided into two compartments, with a minimalist array of equipment, including flashing red lights warning others that the x-ray machine was operating and carried potential dangers due to radiation production, when energised.
In the back section, a sample beef carcase sat idle on a long metal bed in the sealed and secure compartment, where it was scanned by the x-ray camera hovering overhead, away from human contact.
In the other section, Scott’s staff members, who are on hand throughout the x-ray process, monitored a computer screen that provided the digital information obtained from the scanned carcase.
Mr Maguire said the “critical part” of DEXA’s application was providing “objective feedback” between producers and processors and information that accurately described meat quality and what consumers were willing to pay for.
He said Teys had been “playing” with the technology since about 2014, after visiting NZ to look at its application in the lamb industry where they “snuck a few beef carcases through”, to show that it worked.
“What we’ve found already from the carcases we’ve run through the machine is that we’re getting better predictions against CT (Computed Tomography scanning), which we’ve said is the gold standard, than what we can currently provide,” he said.
“The next step is to put it into a meat works and get it to work at chain speed.”
Mr Maguire said by August, the company was hoping its Rockhampton plant would be using its DEXA machine to scan every side of beef processed, at a chain speed of about 160 carcases per hour.
He said at the same time, the red meat industry was already thinking about how to achieve improved confidence in DEXA’s yield measurements, in broadly rolling out the technology throughout Australia.
Industry is in the process of purchasing a CT scanner through MLA and the Australian Meat Processor Corporation (AMPC) which can be routinely moved around to different meat processing plants, to “validate” their DEXA machines, he said.
“So you know, that if you send your cattle to Teys at Wagga or Teys at Naracoorte, the answer you get is the same; it’s really important,” he said.
Mr Maguire said the new x-ray machine technology would also need to stay “trained” to adhere to industry standards for measuring carcases by using a so called “phantom”, with the sheep prototype called ‘Dolly’ and the beef one to be named ‘Barry’.
“There’s a Senator at the moment who should be quite flattered by that,” he said in reference to Queensland Nationals Senator Barry O’Sullivan who is a leading member of the Senate committee inquiry into the red meat sector and recently referred to DEXA technology in a hard-hitting speech about ongoing industry issues and potential reforms.
“That will be run through the machine and the machine will be trained.
“Barry can be an object, it doesn’t have to look like a beef side, and the machine will be calibrated against that on a regular basis and that will be controlled by AUS-MEAT.”
Speaking to Fairfax Agricultural Media, Mr Maguire said it was “pretty hard” to get people to be first and take the lead on new technology or innovations in the red meat industry.
But he said once Teys had “removed and demystified” some of DEXA’s technical challenges, others would follow.
Once the Rockhampton plant proved the DEXA facility could handle 160 carcases per hour and “we’re confident it will” such results, which have already occurred in the lamb sector, would see other meat processors come on board, he said.
Mr Maguire said a lot of debate had occurred during the Senate red meat inquiry, and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s inquiry into the sector, about the beef grading system’s flaws and lack of trust between processors and producers - but DEXA offered new hope of reforms.
“It’s all about building more trust and confidence between producers and processors but the technology is only a small part of that,” he said.
Mr Maguire said the DEXA x-ray data would also be linked to genetics and providing two-way information; including feedback to producers on carcase yield and quality.
“Beef is the Ferrari of protein now around the world – it’s four times the price of chicken – but we are the most expensive protein on offer and we have to do something about delivering that product to the exact standard that the consumer wants,” he said.
“The only way to do that is to provide better information back to cattle producers.
“We don’t produce the stuff - we just cut it up and put it in a box - but we’ve got to get much more accurate information to producers and that’s why we’ve been pushing this.”
An issues paper from an independent review of the new technology - spearheaded by EY’s Federal Government Lead Partner and former federal Agriculture Department head Andrew Metcalfe for the AMPC and Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC) - will also be revealed to media this week.
Mr Metcalfe’s work is evaluating the strategic, financial, technical, commercial, operational, governance and implementation aspects of MLA’s proposal of December last year to invest $150 million to install DEXA in up to 90 AUS-MEAT registered processing plants.
In an interim report tabled before the red meat inquiry was stalled in the previous parliament, due to last year’s federal election, the Senate Committee said there was a “strong desire” amongst producers for price transparency and some form of price mechanism “must be put in place”.
“Therefore, the committee recommends that the industry move towards establishing a national pricing disclosure and reporting mechanism which takes into account all methods of sale,” the report said.
The report also raised concerns about current grading methods, with one contributor saying graders were, in many cases, internally trained and assessed as well as being paid by their employer, the processor, who does not necessarily promote the commercial transparency that would satisfy a producer.
“Therefore…..there is risk of a conflict of interest within the current system,” the report said.
“Many producers made a similar point.
“Processing companies provide their own graders of carcases who are effectively company employees.
“This means that MSA grading can amount to a task effectively performed by abattoir owners who have a 'vested interest in downgrading carcasses'.
“Some suggested that the graders should report to government authority as a means of enhancing the integrity and transparency of the grading process.
“Others argued that independent graders should be employed by a third party to grade and supervise payment for carcases.”