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MSA – Is it worth it?

MSA grading of beef, when originally developed, was a truly wonderful system backed by well researched science. MSA guaranteed that the consumer was assured of a great eating experience when eating beef.

When first launched, only independent MLA graders were employed within all abattoirs, and only young cattle that were raised on a ‘rising plane of growth’ were considered for grading.

However, over the past 8 years I have been very critical of MSA.

In early 2000 when MSA was first developed I was probably one of its biggest fans. For the very first time Australia had a system that would ensure eating quality. This ‘eating quality’ was taken so seriously that if a consumer was dissatisfied (even if the meat had been cooked), the cut of beef could be traced backed to the original beast! That was because DNA samples were kept from every graded animal….a more realistic version of recording traceability.

A system like this doesn’t come cheaply. There have been estimates of $300 million being spent on MSA’s development up to this stage. Some of that funding would have come from MLA’s Research & Development Company, but the bulk of funding of the system came from the grass fed producers’ levies.

MSA had one major flaw……. it was too good.

It described meat correctly, it was selective of the age of cattle that could be graded, it meant substitution with lesser quality beef was stopped, and

For it to be a success, it had to be taken up by all sectors of the industry. However, by 2004 (and according to MLA graphs) the whole system was on its knees.

That is mainly due to the non-adoption of MSA grading by the processors, retailers, and the duopoly of Woolworths and Coles supermarkets. When MSA was first developed, these sectors complained that it was too costly to install, too costly to integrate into their businesses, too difficult all round!

The reality is that a lot of people involved in the meat industry rely on the lucky dip of consistency to make vast amounts of money. By that I mean, they buy sub-standard beef at low prices and sell it as a ‘prime product’ at high prices to the consumer.

 

This called for drastic action. Retailers, supermarkets and processors were all consulted and then the changes to the rules started coming thick and fast. The first to go were the MLA graders replaced by company graders who had no conflict of interest they simply worked for the processor.

Age limits quickly disappeared, boning groups extended, older cattle were graded and DNA testing was ceased and the 3 star rating system was dropped, the list goes on and changes keep coming. Amongst all this MLA tells what a wonderful success MSA has been.  The numbers of cattle going through the MSA process have gone through the roof and according to the MLA it all has been a great success.

Recently I received an invite to attend a tasting panel run by the MLA in Melbourne.  I gleefully accepted not quite knowing what to expect. The whole thing was run by Rod Pollinghorne and his partner.  All meat was cooked under the same conditions.

The taste testers were a church group who then had a series of steaks presented.  20 people were placed in individual cubicles and were then asked a series of questions of their experience and how much they will be willing to pay for that style of meat. The whole process took an hour for each group of 20.  There were 60 people involved in the taste tests in total. The whole test was well-managed and everybody in the management team knew exactly what part they played and it was a truly professionally run test.

With all the changes from the original MSA I really think it’s time that the MLA got out there and did some mystery shopping to actually see what consumers are buying when they buy MSA.  The Melbourne test could be replicated with samples collected by mystery shoppers.

Without DNA testing one has no idea of where the meat purchased originates from, let alone whether it comes from an age cow or a prime vealer or whether indeed somebody has substituted meat that has never been graded by MSA. With 3, 4 and5 star system gone a piece of meat that has scraped through with a score of 45 points could sit alongside another piece that scored 90 points and be all called MSA.  Surely a huge difference in anybody’s book of rules! However, it doesn’t seem to worry the people in charge of MSA.

If this was actually done and figures were published on 60 samples it could be very embarrassing for some retailers and processors. Even worse, if somebody got sick from eating a piece steak we would stand very little chance to identify the origin of that steak in a hurry. With the so-called great tracing system in NLIS we would have even less chance of tracking a piece steak to its origin.

 


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