THE ability to pack and trade beef on eating quality alone via a new cipher in the Australian Beef Language has the potential to deliver a whopping additional $46.5 million per year to the supply chain by eliminating the lost opportunity of high quality meat being downgraded due to dentition.
That’s the finding of Meat and Livestock Australia analysis as the new Eating Quality Graded (EQG) cipher is launched as an optional alternative to dentition ciphers such as YG and YP.
Extensive research has concluded dentition - the number of teeth and animal has - has no impact on the eating quality of beef, yet it has been a long battle, waged mostly on the part of producers, to remove the traditional trading indicator of a beast’s age/maturity.
Cattle that grade Meat Standards Australia (MSA) but are subsequently downgraded by processors on account of dentition is one of the largest costs to the beef industry, producer leaders say.
Under current conditions, where cattle supply is short and feed is abundant in many regions, the losses are particularly stinging.
MLA’s general manager producer consultation and adoption Michael Crowley has described EQG, which is one of the first recommendations to be commercialised of last year’s review into the Beef Language, as a “game changer.”
Already commercial companies were behind it and product was going into international markets using the EQG descriptor, he said.
“Over 100,000 consumers who have eaten over 700,000 individual samples of beef over the past 25 years have told us dentition doesn’t impact eating quality,” Mr Crowley said.
MLA looked at a scenario of four and six tooth cattle over the past 12 months which met MSA specifications and most company eating quality specifications.
The price differences were estimated as: Four tooth were 5 cents a kilogram below YG graded cattle and the six tooth cattle were discounted by 30c/kg.
“If we could have packed that product on outcome first - without downgrading those animals - the extra value to producers would have been close to $9.5m,” Mr Crowley said.
“For the processor, brand owner and wholesale sectors, the extra value would have been $16.5m and at the retail level another $20.5m, based on known price differentials of MSA product collected at the retail sector.
“The total to industry is $46.5m in lost opportunity per year - what a great incentive for every step of the supply chain to get behind this.”
EQG is just one of the MSA changes in progress driving growth of the eating quality consistency program, which turns 20 in 2018.
Speaking at a major industry forum held in conjunction with MLA’s annual general meeting in Alice Springs recently, Mr Crowley said the consumer had to be “in the clear line of sight of everything we do if we are to achieve additional value.”
“The consumer is the only one putting money into the (beef supply) chain and we are asking consumers to pay more than they ever have for our product,” he said.
“We can not let them down on quality.”
By 2020, the plan is to have all cattle eligible for MSA grading.
“That would mean we can predict the consumer outcome from all cuts and appropriately position them to their best end market outcome,” Mr Crowley explained.
“That will lift the value of some cuts that are currently undervalued.”
The other big change has been around the removal of meat colour as an MSA requirement.
“We’re not saying meat colour isn’t important to consumers but our research shows the colour at grading and at retail changed,” Mr Crowley explained.
“Colours tended to get lighter and the colour of the rib eye at grading did not relate to the colour at retail of other cuts.
“Provided pH is below 5.71, we are not compromising the consumer in any way and this has been validated through extensive consumer sensory testing.”
Producers need the signals
PRODUCERS leading the drive for consumer-focussed changes to the way cattle is purchased are frustrated at how slow the wheels are turning on change.
Queensland cattleman David Hill said the fact colour had been removed as a Meat Standard Australia (MSA) requirement still had not been reflected in northern grids.
“We are identifying problems, we have introduced solutions, we are moving down a value based marketing route - but still the key signals for producers are not flowing through,” he said.
“If we are investing so heavily in consumer sensory work, it has to lead to outcomes. The signals have to be delivered to the producer.
“Selecting when to sell on dentition is not allowing the product to reach its maximum potential. It’s like picking your Grange Hermitage grapes before they are ripe.”
Mr Hill said given the largest portion of the opportunity cost identified from this issue sat with the retailer, it made no sense they weren’t “jumping on it”.
“It’s like picking your Grange Hermitage grapes before they are ripe.”
It was the job of the entire industry to ensure the retail customer was along for the ride, he said.
“Here we are with a big lack of cattle supply and all this product that should be going into high quality boxes that is not,” Mr Hill said.
“Maybe the rest of the supply chain needs more skin in game as far as consumer insight research and development goes because it’s the producer forking out for this work for the most part.
“If other sectors had KPIs (key performance indicators) to meet on this, maybe the R and D outcomes would be better adopted.”
Fellow Queensland producer Ian McCamley, who spoke at the Alice Springs forum, said “the sooner we get dentition right out of the industry the better.”
He believes the cost to industry is even larger than what has been identified and said animal welfare should also be factored in.
“We are mouthing and scanning cattle at the moment and even though the feed is unbelievable at home, they look likely they will cut extra teeth in the next few weeks so we are sending them to the works when they are not ready to sell,” he said.
“They won’t make anywhere near the quality product they could if we kept them for another couple of months (allowing them to develop their intramuscular fat to full potential).
“But we can’t risk them breaking extra teeth - you have to fit in with processor specs.”