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MSA – Where To?

One of the biggest problems within the beef industry has always been the inconsistent or negative eating experience that diners then always remember.

To their credit, the MLA initially created a world leading grading system called Meat Standards Australia (MSA).  It was a true grading system that could guarantee, amongst other things, tenderness and a great eating experience.

MLA spent $210 million by 2007 developing MSA. There were thousands of independent taste tests to evaluate the system.  What we finished up with was a grading system that was able to consistently identify the best eating quality beef.

It took the ‘lucky dip of inconsistency” off the restaurant and household table when it came to eating beef.
So, what was wrong with the system?  Nothing at all!  It’s just that now, the processors, the supermarkets, and the retailers refused to adopt MSA in its entirety.

The initial MSA system was in fact too tight for the supermarkets and processors.  It made it very difficult for them to substitute or sell inferior meat!! We all know over the years the meat industry has been caught up in substitution fiascos. Substitution makes them great profits, and helps them to get rid of meats that should not be sold as quality product!

Sadly by 2003, the initial MSA was on the point of collapse due to the low adoption rate by retailers, butcher shops, processors and supermarkets. The Board of MLA made the decision to negotiate with the meat processors and retailers, which led to the watering down of the standards of MSA at point of sale.
The high standards still applied to the producer though – he still got downgraded for a ‘animals that did not meet market specification’, and was also paid on dentition – the number of teeth.

Once MSA was placed in the hands of the processors and retailers, major changes soon appeared in the guidelines of MSA. Having independent and impartial MSA meat graders was an important security control innovation, but first thing to go was that independent and impartial MLA grader.  They were replaced by processor-employed graders.

That is like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank!!  Graders now had to grade the beef to suit those who were paying their wages. One might imagine that these graders were overseen and told not to be so tight on their grading, or not to knock so many bodies back!!

Next to go was the 5-Star rating system, or grading system.  Stars 3, 4 and 5 were all thrown out and replaced with classification by the wider boning groups, while classification by dentition was omitted completely.  (So why is it an issue at point of sale?)
Then went the DNA traceability process!   Initially MSA kept a data bank of all bodies graded by MSA so if there was a query or a complaint on any meat, that piece of meat could be traced back to its initial grading.  This was a compulsory system for all processors, and you can imagine it would keep the impartial graders on their toes.  It would not be good for their performance to have bodies they had graded being complained about – so it ensured standards were kept.

This DNA traceability process then became voluntary in the new MSA, and using the reason of ‘costliness’, the processors voluntarily removed the requirement from the grading system!

And the list of changes and compromises within MSA went on. Take for example the boning groups.
Now we have a bastardised system, developed by the processors and retailers, that allows old inferior meat to be graded and sold  as MSA quality beef.

An example of how the system is now rorted, using boning groups:  A producer sends a culled-for-age animal in for processing.  The animal is naturally discounted for age to the producer, and he is paid accordingly. (Read the rest of this article and ask yourself “Who wins here?  The farmer?  The consumer?  Or the Processor?”)

After slaughter that carcass can then be reassessed for MSA, because they are using boning groups 1 – 18, and many parts of that discounted older animal can then be sold at a premium.  That cow will now be able to get MSA grading based on the extended boning group classifications.

The now bastardized MSA system has so little differentiation between the numerous boning groups that an inferior cut of meat can easily be slotted into a higher category based on ‘interpretation’ of that boning quality.

This is great for processors!  The animal goes into the abattoir door as a discount product, but comes out the delivery door as a premium product with a price to match.

The simple undisputed fact is that the original MSA has been sold off.  The ensuring MSA is now only a shadow of a once truly great system, and consequently people are starting to lose confidence in our beef all over again.

So concerned was I that I offered to run a ‘taste test’ at the MLA AGM.  I offered that the MLA Board members could be the tasters, and could judge and mark the steaks as presented and cooked. I was going to use both MSA and non-MSA beef cuts.   This would allow a comparison of MSA and non-MSA meat, and the consistency or success rate of MSA.  The board failed to take up my offer.

An opportunity arose more recently with Brand Tasmania and their partners, at a workshop in Hobart. I talked with a range of people who were involved in the fine food industry – including oyster growers, cheese producers and other diverse industries.

These people agreed to be involved in a MSA beef taste test.   One the one day, I gathered meat from two of the biggest processors in Tasmania and two of the biggest supermarkets, ensuring that one of the supermarket’s was labelled “MSA Graded”.   The processors’ meats were procured from a wholesaler, and again each was marked “MSA Graded”.  I also bought 2 slices of non-MSA mainland meat from a wholesaler.  Then I sourced Porterhouse steaks from a North East farmer – John McCarthy.  All this meat was to be cooked, and scored for eating quality by the ‘foodies’.

On the day we had a professional chef who cooked all the meats in the same way.  Each piece of steak was secretly identified for recording results.

We had a jury of 12 people who marked on three criteria: Tenderness, Taste and Juiciness. The ‘foodies’ doing the taste-testing had no idea where the meats had come from.

To put more rigour and independence into the process, we had Peter Ball from Tas University actually marking the sheets and adding up the results.

So what was the end result?

Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the MSA graded meat showed itself to be very inconsistent. Remember, this is the one thing MSA was meant to stop.

Interesting to note was that John McCarthy’s meat scored well above all the MSA beef, and a slice of non-MSA beef from Robbo’s Meats came in second.  Also, the non-MSA supermarket beef scored well above the MSA supermarket beef!!   A video was made on the day, and will be made available by ABA soon on Tictacs.
Although this was a small taste test, and MLA has in the past conducted many thousands of tests, I feel that the grades of meat that MLA was running tests on are very different to what we see of MSA products today.

I have written to MLA to ask them to partner with ABA, and conduct a new taste test along the lines of the original MSA tests.

I am very anxious to actually do this trial with MLA’s supervision. It will be very interesting to see if, in fact, I and many others are right when we say that MSA is delivering very inconsistent meat quality.
If MLA is so convinced that their present grading process is up to scratch, what have they to fear?

In the meantime, I await MLA’s letter of acceptance of the challenge.

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