AUSTRALIA’S world-leading beef integrity and traceability systems are paying big dividends but there is work to be done to stay ahead of the game.
The chief executive officer of Meat and Livestock Australia’s (MLA) new integrity and information systems company, Dr Jane Weatherley, delivered that message during a recent presentation in Adelaide.
Speaking at the red meat industry forum held as part of MLA’s annual general meeting, she said the answer to taking integrity systems to a new level potentially lay in data and infrastructure that already exists.
“We have the data, infrastructure and mandate from industry to crack on with a value chain digital strategy and work in that space is starting now,” she said.
The new company was formed on the recognition of a need to consolidate red meat integrity systems and manage them under one umbrella.
It has also been given the remit to drive a digital strategy for the industry.
Dr Weatherley used the United States mad cow disease event to point to the benefits Australia’s traceability system had delivered.
In 2003, when the first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy was detected in Washington State in a Holstein cow, Korea and Japan immediately banned US imports of beef.
“In Japan, Australia quickly capitalised on the US’s loss and we went from having 50 per cent of the quota to 90pc,” Dr Weatherley said.
“In Korea, our market share increased by 80pc.
“The impact for the US was devastating - their export sales fell from US$3.8b to around $1.4b in just three years.”
It wasn’t until 2008 the US re-gained entry into Korea but that was met with considerable backlash from Korean consumers.
The US had still not restored the level of imports they used to enjoy, Dr Weatherley said.
“This is a good example of the ability of Australia to capture opportunity via our integrity systems,” she said.
The benefit of those systems has also recently been independently verified, with the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS), Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) and vendor declarations valued at $355m to the industry, in reflection of the key markets Australia trades into.
“The benefit of our clean, safe and natural image also delivers an additional $107m, making the total value of our integrity systems around $462m,” Dr Weatherley said.
“For the $56m investment we make, that is a return of 8.3:1.”
No place for complacency
But it was critical Australia did not become complacent.
“Foodborne illness outbreaks are occurring more frequently around the world and people want to know more about what they are purchasing,” Dr Weatherley said.
“Many food companies are moving toward improving traceability and wanting the ability to rapidly track product from farm to consumer.
“More and more in places like China there is an expectation among consumers of access to this type of information via QA (quality assurance) codes.”
While Australia had led the way in robust integrity systems, other red meat producing countries are fast catching up, potentially diminishing our point of difference in lucrative markets.
Uruguay has just initiated a certified beef program for its exports to the US, called Never Ever.
The guarantee is that beef with this label has never received antibiotics, hormones or proteins of animal origin.
Another example is the Red Tractor program - the UK’s standard setting for animal welfare, food safety and environmental protection which now has broadscale awareness.
“We need to be on our game and seeking new opportunities,” Dr Weatherley said.
To that end, a fully electronic system with vendor declarations available on apps was in the pipeline, she said.
A number of commercial providers are about to release those apps.
“This system has the potential to link with other programs like MSA (Meat Standards Australia) and PCAS (Pasturefed Certification Assurance System) and with health statements,” Dr Weatherley said.
Economic analysis has estimated the electronic system is likely save the beef industry around $5.8m a year.
Digital agriculture will be disruptive
“We are world leaders in our farming systems and the technology is coming at us from everywhere,” Dr Weatherley said.
“We need to start looking at how we can embrace it, connect what we already have - that in itself is a huge opportunity for us.
“We’re not there yet in terms of understanding what digital agriculture can do for us but we know now is the time.
“It will be disruptive and change how we operate but as an industry we have a good history of implementing disruptive systems.
“NLIS is just one example and it turned to out be a gem, securing global markets and the premiums they offered.”
With this in mind, MLA has three projects on the go.
A single sign-on for integrity and information systems (NLIS, MSA, and LPA) will be launched in early 2017.
A more customised version of myMLA, offering relevant information based on user location and enterprise delivered through a producer’s own personalised dashboard, is also coming.
And upgraded market and prices information, which is more interactive and also accessible from a multitude of devices, will be how business is done next year.