IN a year of record cattle prices, the world leading Meat Standards Australia eating quality program has delivered additional returns to the beef farmgate in 2016-17 of $130 million.
Even though cattle slaughter numbers in Australia have significantly decreased in the past 12 months, the proportion of MSA graded cattle has increased.
The fact the MSA price differential has held up against a backdrop of extraordinary market circumstances is proof of the program’s value to consumers both here and overseas, according to those at Meat and Livestock Australia who run MSA.
Indeed, surveys carried out by Millward Brown have butchers reporting a $1.50 per kilogram difference in what consumers were willing to pay for MSA-graded beef over the past year.
Striving for meat eating excellence clearly yields big rewards, says MSA program manager Sarah Strachan.
The latest beef eating quality audit, to be released by MLA later this month, shows 40 per cent of the Australian cattle slaughter is now MSA graded, with 2.8m head graded in 2016-17 through 42 MSA licenced processors.
That is a 2pc jump on the previous financial year.
The largest volume comes from Queensland and the Northern Territory, which represents 42pc of all MSA-graded cattle from 2015 until now.
The audit shows MSA young cattle commanded a 23 cent per kilogram premium over their non-MSA equivalent.
That equates to around $65 a head.
MSA grainfed cattle commanded an extra $34 a head.
Ms Strachan said those figures could be considered conservative considering the many programs offering even higher prices for MSA cattle that meet additional specifications.
“That additional level of return that went back to the farmgate driven by the MSA program is amazing in a market where cattle prices were already at record highs,” she said.
MSA, based on almost 700,000 consumer taste tests by more than 100,000 consumers from nine countries, turns 20 next year.
“It was triggered by consumer surveys that showed a lack of confidence buying beef - consumers were saying they don’t know how to tell whether its tough or tender and the price is not giving an indicator,” Ms Strachan explained.
“Consumers are the only people who put money into the supply chain. What they contribute is all we have to share back down the supply chain.
“We simply can not let them down.
“We know people want to be buy beef but we need to make sure they feel confident in making that purchase, especially at the moment while we are asking millions of consumers around the world to pay very good money for it.”
MSA, she said, was more important than ever in making sure Australian beef stayed one step ahead of its competition from both other beef-producing countries and other proteins.
Nothing goes into the MSA model unless it has been validated by extensive consumer testing, Ms Strachan said.
More than 40,000 Australian consumers surveyed have said they were willing to pay “twice as much” for a five-star beef eating experience.
“That response is remarkably consistent around the world in our key markets, including the United Kingdom, Europe, Asia and the United States,” Ms Strachan said.
“In Japan, they say they’ll pay three times as much.”
Brand owners had become the focus for MSA “because we believe they will drive the understanding of eating quality with consumers around the world”, Ms Strachan said.
“We are seeing an exponential increase in the number of brands coming into the marketplace,” she said.
“MSA a quality mark, not a brand - it’s independent endorsement their product is going to deliver every single time.”
There are now 156 brands underpinned by MSA - the likes of Cape Grim, Fernhill Road and Grasslands to name just a few.
“A lot of these brands are now moving into export markets - that’s the new growth stage of the MSA program,” Ms Strachan said.
It’s that new era that is expected to drive MLA’s goal of every pathway to slaughter being eligible for MSA by 2020 and 50pc of national slaughter MSA graded.
“Out of those animals, our sights are set on being able to accurately predict fitness for purpose - where every part of those carcases should go to meet a consumer outcome,” Ms Stratchan said.
“When people walk into a meat retail outlet, they are thinking about what they want to eat that night.
“We don’t need to give them all the measurements that have been taken. We just need to make sure that piece will perform for the meal they’ve got in mind.”
The Millward Brown research clearly showed the benefits of selling a consumer outcome rather than just a piece of meat, she said.