AUSTRALIA'S standardised meat grading system is a mark of quality and consistency, but the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) system may not have become the well-regarded program it is today without the help of the lotfeeding industry.
For the first two decades of ALFA, the organisation was pushing for a meat quality system, but the idea of a trademark for grain-fed beef had been discussed by the Queensland Lotfeeders' Association as early as the 1960s.
Rod Polkinghorne, who had established the successful Charlton Feedlot in Victoria, which went from a 300-head project to 20,000 in 1989 when he sold it, was a big part of the commercial development of MSA.
"There was always this belief that grain-fed beef was better and worth a premium," Dr Polkinghorne said.
"We had continual industry debate on what was quality, and the standards to work to, and how we could develop a grading system."
Dr Polkinghorne authored a draft business plan for an ALFA domestic branding program in 1991, and following consumer taste trials and consumer research from Danger Research Group, the brand name Tender Choice was selected.
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A grant from the federal government in 1993 led to more work on a branding program, incorporating Tender Choice and the high quality Gourmet Choice brand, Dr Polkinghorne said.
"It was intended to take a couple of months; 18 years later it remains a work in progress which I now believe should never end."
It took almost a decade before MSA was commercially released in 1998.
The first trial in 1991 was the first using consumers, with striploins from five different meat plants from Ipswich to Melbourne, ranging from 0 to 3 marbling.
"After the sensory testing we found that we didn't know that much, and there was a lot of variation in the results."
From there, they tested beef with expert panels and consumers over a number of trials, and it was a long process, but developing protocol to test consumers, with a list of questions, similar to how MSA test consumers today, gave the group clarity.
"We sent data from 5000 consumers to Professor Ray Watson at Melbourne University to determine the degree of consumer consistency and to recommend a suitable eating quality measure.
While consumers didn't understand the trained panel terms, they clearly identified tenderness, flavour, juiciness and overall eating quality which were combined in the recommended MQ4 score.
"The consumer testing protocol has now been used on 180,000 people in 11 countries.
"If we had stuck with the original plan, the testing was that erratic that we never would have developed MSA.
"ALFA has always been very close to quality grading, from the initial trials to how we apply the testing to each cut, cooking method and ageing."
Consistency in meat quality has been a big achievement for the industry, Dr Polkinghorne said.
"Originally it was an industry built around the Japanese market, then local markets, evening out supply with supermarkets year round, and now grain-fed beef is big in export and domestic markets, and we have the ability to manage seasons.
"The Americans started feeding cattle because they're locked up in winter, but in Australia, we're focused on turning off consistent cattle for specific markets at all times of the year."