Eating quality cipher a key advantage for farm industry

The platform the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) program gives producers to fine-tune their operations in line with consumer demands represents a core advantage for the Australian red meat industry.

For central Queensland beef producer, Ian McCamley, it’s an advantage that will only be enhanced by the industry’s new Eating Quality Graded (EQG) cipher.

Introduced in August 2017, the EQG cipher relates exclusively to the eating quality of meat and disregards any reference to dentition.

For McCamley, its adoption reflects a concerted effort to shift the industry away from reliance on dentition as an indication of eating quality.

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“Historically, the first thing cattle were graded on was dentition. There was this industry-wide belief that the less teeth the animal had, the better the eating quality would be,” said McCamley.

“When MSA was being developed, the science quickly showed that the number of permanent incisors had no real relevance to eating quality, and as a result this indicator wasn’t included in the MSA program,” he said.

It was McCamley’s first-hand experience having cattle MSA graded from 2007 on, that initially raised a query around the relevance of dentition to eating quality.

He and his wife Kate run 7,000 head of cattle across their PCAS and MSA accredited operation north of Rolleston, Queensland, a third of which is also EU accredited.

Purchasing weaner steers, they grow them to a live weight of about 600kg before selling them into the premium priced grassfed market.

“Back then, getting an animal into Boning Group One was the holy grail as a producer. The processor we were selling to at the time was providing us with feedback on every beast – instead of just those with milk and two teeth,” said McCamley.

“What this revealed, was that the very first steer we ever got into Boning Group One had six teeth. Of course, this meant that despite passing the MSA and grassfed tests with flying colours, we were savagely discounted based on dentition.

“This got me started on a crusade to try and move the industry away from applying premiums and discounts based on an indicator that had no real relevance to eating quality. I didn’t think dentition was relevant, the scientists didn’t think it was relevant, and it was costing producers and the industry a lot of money,” he said.

“Meat and Livestock Australia have now done some great work quantifying what the reliance on dentition is costing the industry, but I suspect the cost is even higher than they concluded.

“A lot of producers simply won’t bother sending their cattle in to be graded if they fear they might have too many teeth, and some processors won’t MSA grade cattle with more than two or four teeth.

“There is unnecessary animal and human stress caused by mouthing large cattle for no good reason, and producers often send cattle in before they reach their optimum finish and full eating quality potential, just in case they cut too many teeth. Everyone loses, including the consumer,” said McCamley.

His role as the producer representative on the Beef Language Steering Committee, in 2014 and 2015, helped with the development and introduction of the EQG cipher.

“One of the key recommendations to come out of the language review was the introduction of a cipher based on eating quality, being MSA, with no reference to dentition. It was a major turning point,” he said.

With the industry having relied on dentition as an indicator of eating quality for so long, Ian was surprised at the pace of uptake of the EQG cipher.

“We probably underestimated the adaptability of some of the processors and brand owners, and we expected there to be more resistance than there has been.”

Despite this, he acknowledges that the benefits of the EQG cipher are still yet to fully reach producers.

“Right now, we’re still selling our cattle on the old ciphers and being discounted based on dentition, despite the processor selling a growing proportion of the beef based on the EQG cipher,” said McCamley.

“As producers, we’re not quite there yet, but I feel the change is coming. I’m optimistic that soon we’ll start to see price grids coming back to the producer that include the EQG cipher and don’t reference dentition,” he said.

Meat Standards Australia delivers more than $152m in farm gate returns

The Meat Standards Australia (MSA) program is estimated to have delivered $152 million in additional farm gate returns in 2017-18, according to the latest data contained in the MSA annual outcomes report.

The new data also shows more than 3.1 million cattle and 6.1m sheep processed through the MSA program in 2017-18.

For cattle, this represented 43 per cent of the national adult cattle slaughter, an increase of 3 per cent on the 2016-17 financial year.

The number of sheep following MSA pathways in 2017-18, represented 26 per cent of the national lamb slaughter.

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Seventy-four per cent of those lambs supplyed brands underpinned by MSA.

MSA program manager Sarah Strachan said latest figures showed the MSA program continued to grow and strengthen, providing strong farm gate returns.

“This year marks 20 years since this world-leading eating quality program was released to industry, and adoption rates continue to rise with more than 5,000 new cattle and/or sheep producers becoming registered to supply livestock through the MSA program in the past financial year,” she said.

“Producers continue to also embrace carcase feedback, with a 32 per cent increase in the number of beef producers accessing reports and benchmarking tools on myMSA in 2017-18.

“The uptake in accessing carcase feedback is reflected in outstanding compliance to MSA minimum requirements, which was maintained at 94 per cent across all feed types, nationally, and the average MSA Index for compliant carcases improved by 0.19 Index points to 57.78,” said Strachan.

Sixteen new brands became MSA-licensed to underpin their brands with the independent endorsement of eating quality, taking the total number of MSA-licensed brands to 172.

Almost 3,000 producers received MSA education through more than 81 workshops or information sessions, including the MSA Excellence in Eating Quality Awards series, which reached more than 500 producers at six forums across the country.

Strachan said looking towards 2020, MSA had its sights set firmly on ensuring all cattle in Australia will be eligible for MSA grading and have their eating quality accurately described.

“The goal is for more than 50 per cent of the national cattle slaughter and 43 per cent of the lamb slaughter being MSA graded,” she said.

“At the same time we are looking for ways to help producers improve their compliance rates, their MSA index values and supporting brand owners to fully embrace eating quality principles.

“These goals are driving the focus for investments in new eating quality research and striving to extract greater value from the MSA program for the whole supply chain,” said Strachan.

MSA is focused on ensuring the program continues to grow and deliver benefits to its more than 50,000 registered producers, 53 MSA processors, 172 brands, and 3,681 end user outlets, by consistently meeting consumers’ expectation for beef and sheepmeat eating quality, she said.

State breakdown (MSA proportion of state slaughter):

–          New South Wales represented 62 per cent of MSA cattle and 17 per cent of MSA sheep

–          Queensland represented 39 per cent of MSA cattle

–          South Australia represented 20 per cent of MSA cattle and 55 per cent of MSA sheep

–          Tasmania represented 58 per cent of MSA cattle and 14 per cent of MSA sheep

–          Victoria represented 20 per cent of MSA cattle and 33 per cent of MSA sheep.

–          Western Australia represented 56 per cent of MSA cattle and 33 per cent of sheep.