LAST week’s bold announcement by MLA of its intention to borrow $150m to install Dual Energy X-ray Absorptiometry (DEXA) technology in up to 90 slaughter facilities in Australia sounds as though the red-meat industry’s long-running quest for true value-based marketing may at last be closing in on its goal.
MLA heralded the initiative as a revolutionary plan to install objective carcass measurement (OCM) technology across the red-meat industry.
While the borrowing money part to foist technology on willing or unwilling market participants could perhaps be described as revolutionary, the strategic direction part of remaining committed to the pursuit of objective measurement is probably better described as evolutionary.
Thirty eight years ago the Queensland Meat Industry Organisation and Marketing Authority introduced the first occasion in a Queensland abattoir of carcasses being classified by objective determination for sex, age by dentition, carcass weight and measured fat depth at the Bundaberg Public Abattoir. A similar initiative began at Kilcoy Abattoir in mid 1979.
In 1981/82, yield trials were undertaken at Kilcoy, Mackay and Beenleigh abattoirs with the result that tangible dollar value differences were identified for carcasses with different levels of measured fatness.
One of the first to convert that research into a commercial weight/fat price grid was Thomas Borthwick & Sons, Mackay. Producers responded enthusiastically to the initiative and the high level of satisfaction they expressed was no doubt a factor in the extension of price-grid trials and commercial implementation at other meatworks in the years that followed.
But as the technology of carcass measurement became more widespread, so too did awareness of its limitations.
Hide puller damage at the 12/13th rib site was sufficiently worrisome to cause industry to seek and adopt an alternative measurement site. The remedy at the time seemed to lie with the technological wizardry of the Hennessy Grading Probe, an optoelectronic device developed in New Zealand.
Similarly, a technological fix was sought to improve the predictive estimate of saleable beef yield and that was thought to lie with VIAscan. These have come and gone to the point that it is hard to find any evidence of either today.
Trust in technology however has remained resolute leading MLA managing director Richard Norton to what seems an unshakeable belief that DEXA will not only usher in value based marketing but also industry-wide productivity gains through processing automation, genetic improvement and data-based farm management decision making and in the longer term a huge reduction in the cost of grading to industry.
What is DEXA?
DEXA has been around for a while. In the medical sector it has been used for many years for bone density scanning and is typically used to diagnose bone loss conditions such as osteoporosis and other measures of body composition. It is also the technological basis of modern day airport security scanners.
Many might be surprised to learn that it is already well known to the meat industry as a method of rapid chemical lean (CL) analysis of fresh or frozen meat.
DEXA works by measuring the absorbency of two different groups of x-ray wavelengths (energies).
When the x-ray beam is passed through a piece of meat some of the energies are absorbed while others will pass through. What gets absorbed and what passes through depends on the composition of the meat i.e. muscle, fat or bone.
This provides a very accurate measure of carcass composition and when combined with commercial bone-out research data, it is possible to construct an algorithm that not only predicts saleable meat yield but also primal cuts and even muscle weights.
DEXA also shows anatomical shape and precise location of primals within the carcass which allows for integration with automated cutting technology.
This is perhaps the most exciting part for processors as it has huge potential to drive productivity gains and reduce Australia’s uncompetitive meat processing costs.
Commercial adoption is already underway in the sheepmeat sector with JBS Bordertown in South Australia the site of a joint venture development that has been running for several years.
Dr Alex Ball was MLA’s leader of strategic innovation at the time of the Bordertown project and he showed remarkable vision when he spoke about the potential benefits of DEXA and associated technologies at a supply chain forum two years ago.
He said then that if this system was installed in every plant across Australia in combination with the MSA Index we would have a single system for describing the yield and quality potential for the entire Australian beef herd and sheep flock.
That statement encapsulates the value-based marketing ideal because it recognises that quality is as much a part of the value proposition as yield.
And therein rests an interesting conundrum. Science tells us there is a strong negative correlation between yield and eating quality. Selecting for higher values in one will have the effect of a decline in the values for the other.
Given that industry is now so heavily focused on brands, the challenge for brand owners will be to determine what their relative value propositions for yield and quality are. Then of course that information has to be represented to producers in a form that will allow them to choose the best return for their cattle.
It would seem there is still some work to do before the ‘holy grail’ is firmly within our grasp.