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More Beef…

Cattle producer and former Cattle Council member, Ian McCamley, made an interesting speech at the MLA Annual General Meeting in Albury 2 weeks ago.   He said that producers must be the catalyst for change in driving dentition (the aging of cattle and sheep by the number of teeth they’ve grown) out of the industry.

Mr McCamley suggested that the removal of dentition from processor grids should be a priority for producers, thus allowing cattle to be graded purely for eating quality. He felt strongly that this would provide benefits across all sectors.  I doubt the processors would agree with him. 

Ian McCamley has obviously done a great deal of work with the recording of all his cattle’s facts and kill sheets, and has accumulated a lot of data, which he uses to make some very telling points.

According to Ian we need to adopt the pure driver of ‘Eating Quality’, rather than the bastardised version of MSA (Meat Standards Australia) we currently have.   He suggests that we have the world’s best science at our disposal through MSA, and I feel we need to get back to the basics of the original MSA which has been taken over by the processors and retailers. 

So how do we move forward with so many players working in the differing bodies of the beef industry?   Who is going to drive the change – RMAC; the processors; the supermarkets;  Ausmeat;  Cattle Council; or MLA? I can’t see change happening because each ‘division’ has a good reason for the situation to stay as it is now, or absolutely no power to change it.   

The Processors got control over MSA when  it became  apparent that  the system would collapse due to lack of  interest shown by processors and retailers. Rules were changed.   First to go were the independent MLA graders.  Processors put their own graders in.  Their boning classifications are now so wide, just about anything makes it thru to be ‘graded’. 

The supermarkets use MSA in their own way – they use the ‘specs’ to buy their cattle from producers (nothing above 4 tooth), but will also buy MSA meat from processors, harvested from cattle that would never meet their own specifications. . One supermarket now uses the MSA grading on their packaging, having not supported it at all when MLA was trying to get the program up and running. (Nor did most butchers unless financially supported by MLA to promote MSA).  

MLA and Cattle Council where the instigators and developers of MSA, making it a very complicated and expensive form of gradin; not easily used by marketers.        

No, if there is a change to be made, it will be done at the expense of the farmers. It is an easy argument to prosecute that the processors have control over most of the Peak Bodies,  and CCA are too busy trying to stay afloat, or be relevant, to help make a change.

This leaves the ABA and willing producers to push for a better system.

So if we removed the process of dentition to age cattle, would it provide benefits to all sectors of the industry?   I disagree with Mr McCamley.  Think of this:

A processor buys an 8 tooth beast.  The producer is paid $2.40 for that 250kg carcass – beast value is $600.

This carcase is then assessed under MSA as Boning Group ‘5’.

This is where the use of dentition has suddenly been ignored, and ‘ossification’ is now the criteria used to assess meat quality. The boning groups (ossification) are now so wide that most meat can get into a ‘grade’.  Processors have boning groups 1 – 18, and even Woolworths will only use 1 – 10 because they want to be a little more careful about the consistency of the meat they sell to their customers!!

MSA can be used by companies how they want to use it….they have their own graders who obviously will work to their company’s requirements.  

The same producer can also sell a 250kg YG carcass and receive $3.60/kg – beast value is $900.

Sadly the meat from the discounted cow could end up in the same package as the meat from the prime yearling.  The difference in value between the two carcasses is $300, which is a good profit to make by selective ‘grading’!   

If I were a processor, I would fight tooth and nail to keep the present system, as it’s a great money spinner for them.

When one reads the original business plan for MSA, the main aim was to stop the lucky dip of inconsistency in beef quality, and consumers getting turned away from beef due to that inconsistency.  What we see now is ‘grading’ that aids and abets a well-entrenched system that makes a fortune out of deception and greed.   To me this is very disappointing as MSA was a great system, even if a little complicated. Now it is a tool for the processors to make better profits.

Under today’s MSA, a carcass can score from 45 to 100 points, which is a huge range in quality, and this huge range will show up in the quality of the different Stars of meat. MSA, in the supermarkets, has done away with the Star ratings of 3, 4 and 5.   They use MSA which does not enlighten the consumer.     

Even if all systems are followed correctly by each company, the difference between a MSA Star 3 and a MSA Star 5 are worlds apart.  When first launched, MSA beef had to be graded by independent MLA graders.  There was also DNA identification, along with other rules that ensured integrity, but these were knocked out once rules were changed.  MSA, the way it is run now, is nothing short of a disgrace, and is the shadow of what it was when it was first launched.

MLA had done an ‘independent’ valuation of MSA in 2007.   It was found that the cost at that stage was $210 million to establish MSA, but they boasted that the returns were $994 million to the industry!!! 

I think you would all agree with me that it is not the cattleman who is getting the fabulous return, when we can all prove that we are still getting the same cents per kilo that we were 20 years ago.  The increase in carcase size has only come about because of producers’ investment in better genetics and breeding, but that has been at their cost as well. 

Mr McCamley stated that the Processors maintain they make a profit of $50-$60 a head.  I would be very surprised if processors are working on these sorts of margins at present, with the current cattle prices.  But knowing the differences in valuation of carcases as discussed earlier, I think we all might not agree with that statement.  

I was puzzled by their figures. I’ve got no doubt MSA has cost producers hundreds of millions of dollars, whilst supermarkets and processors have earned billions from it,  but the one most resounding fact is….in  all this time, the  consumption of beef has continued to fall, with even MLA stating it is now down to about 31kgs per person per year.  A fall from 42kgs in 2001.  

Surely we don’t need a so-called independent MLA enquiry as to find out why consumption continues to fall.   We can all tell the MLA ourselves!

Ian McCamley is right, producers must get together if we are going to bring about change. 




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