VISITING family on the other side of the world invariably involves shopping for food and thus the opportunity to observe market trends and compare some basic living costs.
The first thing that was noticeable on a recent trip to the UK was the amount of conventionally packaged beef (vacuum-shrink or MAP) on supermarket refrigerated display shelves appeared to be diminishing.
Instead, there seems to be a trend toward a staffed, fresh-meat counter where they will cut to your requirements. In some supermarkets the fresh-meat section also included a dry-ageing cabinet stocked with beef sub-primals.
Admittedly this was by no means a comprehensive survey but it did include several large shops in the top-tier and some large and small shops in the second-tier.
In the self-serve shelves beef mince was always reasonably supplied in different forms of packaging at £6-7 a kilogram ($A11-13) but beyond that the range and quantity of beef on offer was fairly limited.
Individual slices of rib-fillet or porterhouse in vacuum-shrink packaging were priced between £19-22/kg ($A34-40), little different to observations over the past four years and surprisingly consistent with Australian supermarket prices.
At the fresh-meat counter, presentation and price suggested a quality difference to the pre-packs on the shelves but apart from the odd provenance or breed statement, there were no observable formal grading claims to indicate quality.
Similar fresh-meat cuts were generally dearer than the pre-pack prices above but the dry-aged product was a quantum-leap in price at £36-38/kg ($A65-70).
Britain does not appear to have a grading system but does have a Quality Standard Mark assurance scheme which covers provenance and some basic meat-quality related criteria from farm through processing and cold chain to the point of wholesale/distribution.
Retailers can participate in the scheme and use the Quality Standard Mark stickers on packs but none were sighted in the supermarkets visited.
To that extent red-meat retailing in Britain seems to have something in common with Australia's MSA scheme which was also originally designed as a consumer marketing tool but found its place more in the background rather than the front line.
Administered by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the provenance aspect of the scheme differentiates meat as English, Scottish or Welsh against catch-all British.
The quality considerations are little more than what Australian states implemented through colour roller-branding schemes in the 1980s: age, fat cover, conformation, tender stretch or electrical stimulation and product maturation of seven to 14 days for grilling/roasting cuts.
There are no chiller assessment provisions.
Possibly the move to fresh-meat counters in supermarkets in Britain is in response to the popularity of this type of retailing in fresh-food markets in Britain and more generally continental Europe.
In contrast to Australia there seems little interest on the British consumer's part to buy cheap, bulk cuts of questionable quality. There simply are no hefty rump and loin primals spilling out of chiller cabinets over there.
Always of interest in these country-to-country comparisons is how producer returns shape up.
From AHDB's market reporting site, the GB all-prime trade cattle average in late August was 325-326p/kg DW. That converts to AU580-590c/kg.
According to the latest MLA report, grass and grain MSA steers in Queensland are averaging 573-574c/kg while public grid pricing in southern states indicates a slightly higher 595-600c/kg.
On an Australian east-coast basis that makes gross returns to Australian producers virtually identical to British farmers' receipts.
Of course there are some significant qualifiers to this sort of analysis.
The British industry, being driven primarily by the domestic market and operating under more reliable climatic conditions, is possibly less prone to significant price swings than the export oriented and climatically challenged Australian market.
In addition while still a part of the EU, British farmers are entitled to CAP subsidies.
Renewed surge in numbers as dry persists
VICTORIA'S usual seasonal shortage of cattle numbers and drought elsewhere pushing cattle forward remain the drivers of the east-coast market and little appears likely to change until cattle start to move in the south with the onset of spring proper and storms start to bring relief to the parched country in NSW and Queensland.
Queensland processor contacts report southern operators pushing hard into northern auction markets and right up into central Queensland on a liveweight paddock-sale basis.
The initial tightening in the south in early July saw cows spike up to almost 300c/kg LW in saleyards.
Over-the-hooks rates in southern Queensland up until then had been steady at around 420-425c/kg but a 10c rise in the second week of July and a series of rises since saw them at around 450c by early August.
Around Brisbane Exhibition time numbers stalled and another 5-10c was subsequently added to bullock and cow rates taking them to 560 and 460c respectively where they have remained since.
That extra money combined with no sign of a break prompted another run of cattle to the point that processors started to see some numbers in front once again.
This has now translated into central and northern Queensland works having September pretty well covered and couple of weeks' cattle on the books for southern Queensland works.
Also it is not just a Queensland phenomenon as shown by saleyard activity right through to southern NSW.
Wagga on Monday offered more than 1500 cows in a total yarding of 4800.
Under this weight of numbers price for heavy score 4s, which had been averaging around 277c/kg, dropped 14c to 263. But that is still around 500-520c DW and substantially ahead of southern Queensland rates.
Dubbo market last Thursday was also well represented with good runs of heavyweight cows and similarly saw rates come off by 11-16c to a 252c average for the score 4s.
Big numbers of heavy cows were also evident at Dalby last Wednesday.
Unlike the southern markets they started from a lower average of around 230c and were able to add 5c bringing them into alignment with upgraded OTH rates.