A recent article about Murray Bridge processing works was very interesting and supports my suspicions that processors and retailers don’t always play the game. Neither would it appear do AusMeat and I have never held back with my criticism of this organisation. The article outlines how producers with high or low fat readings are penalised with vicious discounts if their cattle do not reach specification.
Woolworths gave compensation to one farmer who complained about receiving incorrect fat penalties. (W/W contract kill at Murray Bridge) The farmer alleges he was given 24-hours to accept the deal. Another farmer was told that Woolworths would reconsider doing business with him if he continued to seek financial compensation. Apparently Woolworths told yet another farmer if they compensated him they would have to refund all farmers who received incorrect fat penalties. To me this is typical behaviour by large retailers and processors who realise there is very little that producers can do if there is a problem.
Woolworth was quoted as saying a faulty probe was used at Murray Bridge facility last December. Aus Meat conducted an audit and found that, due to a faulty probe; cattle fat scores may have been incorrect when issued to Woolworths in December last year. A Woolworth’s spokesman said once this issue was bought to our attention the meat had already been processed and then retrospective verification was impossible.
But Murray Bridge disputed the incident occurred on December, saying instead that a faulty probe was discovered on a particular day in January. They went on to say in January when conducting routine daily monitoring checks they identified a malfunction with the fact probe on that particular day. Murray Bridge went on to say they immediately switched to manual verification and informed AusMeat and the wholesale customer.
The third player in this scenario AusMeat state an audit was conducted on January 23 after a livestock agent lodged a complaint in December about the fat scores his clients had received. AusMeat say they did not know how long the faulty probe had been operating at Murray Bridge and went on to say that Aus Meat has no right to tell processors how to deal with their customers.
The simple fact is that there is nobody identifiable as responsible and once again the producer is the one holding the short end of the stick. It would be very hard to prove how long the faulty probe was used. However what we do know is that the person operating the fat depth machine has to have a certificate of competence issued by AusMeat to use that machine and surely visual assessment skills would be assessed as a competence. That person would be a company employee employed by the processor not AusMeat however: potential conflict of interest? You bet. The fact is the processors have a lot to gain and with the people policing the rules being company employees – they are the policeman, judge, jury and executioner.
It is very interesting to watch livestock buyers actually make a judgement on fat measurement while the beast is live and they can be extremely good and accurate. In comparison we have an employee of a processor working 38 – 40 hours week taking measurements on the fat off carcass beef – potentially1000s a week. One reasonably could expect that person to have a very good visual assessment skillset without the aid of electronic or manual measuring devices.
In saying this I really feel that any employee dealing with fat measurements every day of the week should know there was something wrong with the probe as their visual assessment should correlate with the machine. Had they been using this dual assessment method the fact that it didn’t would have set off alarm bells. It would be very simple to do an approximate calibration at the beginning of each shift by performing a manual assessment against the probe before utilising the automatic probe for the remainder of the shift.
After being around industry for many years I would be pretty certain that Murray Bridge has been unlucky. However, this highlights the potential handicaps that can be applied by processors and retailers to producers and the inability to check the accuracy of penalties applied to carcasses and the lack of recourse for producers if inaccuracies are identified. Arguably, this is only the tip of the iceberg with things like non-standard trim and other routes that routinely catch the producer. The simple solution, as someone has suggested, film the whole process with live feed-back if required.
Some of the more interesting measures taken by processors to apply penalties are very difficult to justify – butt shape, carcass beef being bought by the side and when one side doesn’t meet company specifications due to the fact that the beast has not been split evenly down the middle either side will still give the same amount of saleable meat. Then we have the MSA grading system. How many times do we see a carcass graded by accredited assessors as MSA eligible, only to fail processor company specifications? Yet, amazingly, the meat is still sold as a premium MSA product to the retailer, despite being discounted to the producer.
With the coming Senate enquiry I hope that these sorts of things will be fleshed out and following that, hopefully, somebody will have the courage to actually carry out any recommendations made. I wouldn’t be holding my breath as we have multinationals and supermarket giants on one side and on the other side we have an under resourced and underperforming Cattle Council and caught uncomfortably in the middle is the producer.