Frozen quarter beef exports show signs of growth – what’s behind it?

Jon Condon, 13/09/2023

SIGNS are emerging that export trade in Australian frozen quarter beef is again gathering some momentum.

Trade in frozen quarters has been seen at different times in the past, mostly low quality cow or SS Ox cipher beef, rather than grain or grassfed prime steer or heifer.

A trade source suggested that dealing in frozen quarter beef may be an attractive option for some beef processors at present, as a means of optimising plant throughput during the current period of high cattle supply pressure and low labour access.

“Removing the boning and carton packaging stage definitely reduces labour requirement considerably, over any given number of process cattle,” he said. “It might be less than half.”

The trade tends to suit plants that have limitations in chilled and frozen carton storage, or an imbalance between kill floor and boning room capacity, for whatever reason.

Export trade sources say there is still a perception among some importers that there are price savings to be made by importing frozen quarter beef and boning the product themselves, at lower fabrication costs.

Two large export processors contacted by Beef Central confirmed that they are currently trading in frozen quarters, shipped mostly into Asian markets in muslin ‘stockings’ to provide some protection. One said it did quarter beef only when it fitted its plant roster, providing some flexibility.

Long history

In earlier times, surprising quantities of frozen quarters were exported out of Australia.

Before market liberalisation in the early 1990s, Australia was limited to frozen quarter beef only in its trade with South Korea. At the time, Australian beef could only be sold to government agencies under an antiquated monthly tender system designed to protect local Korean Hanwoo beef farmers. While other supplier countries had different rules, Australia was limited to frozen quarters only.

Despite the limitations, Korean trade in those days, through companies like Remserv, Sanger and Tancreds, frequently topped 80,000 tonnes a year.

When the China market first started to open up for Australian beef around 2017, considerable exports were made in frozen quarter beef form – at one point making up 20pc of total volume.

That was partly because China had large numbers of boning rooms sitting idle, built in anticipation of an expanding Chinese beef herd that did not take place. Instead, the Chinese sought to utilise those boning facilities to bone-out thawed Australian quarters.

That trade gradually diminished over the next few years, as it became apparent that there was little in the way of savings to be made, when all factors (ie shrink after thawing, and inefficient use of shipping container capacity) were taken into account.

“It was always a price-point thing, when frozen quarter beef first started into the China market,” an export trade contact said.

“The processing labour factor may be playing a part in the trade that’s happening now, but in earlier times it was all about cheapest possible price,” he said.

“There’s a whole range of constraints when dealing in frozen quarter beef. To start with, it’s a pain to load, because it is simply stacked in a container like logs of wood. That has to be done manually, because of their irregular shape, and each quarter can weigh 70-80kg. It’s a workplace safety nightmare.”

“And a lot of beef plants are not set up to load straight out of the freezer onto the loading dock.”

The trader said interest in quarter beef tended to happen when certain customers were budget-conscious, looking to save on procurement costs. Markets like the Philippines and Indonesia, and even specific customers in the US, have also been frozen quarter customers in the past.

Depending on its use, sometimes the quarters are not even thawed before boning, but simply put through a bandsaw, bone-in.

“You rarely see customer countries going back to quarter beef, once they have moved on,” another trade source said. “It tends to be something they transition through, on the way to better quality boxed beef – but given the current state of many overseas economies, that might change this year.”

Another common reservation about the quarter beef trade was the fragmentation of customers. “It seemed that every quarter was going to a different ma-and-pa business customer,” the trade contact said. “But they quickly worked out that when it arrived, they weren’t easy to lift, they would lose 4-5pc in the defrost stage, and maybe it wasn’t as cheap as everyone thought.”

How big is the quarter beef export trade?

So how big is the quarter beef export trade at present?

Department of Agriculture export statistics make it difficult to define. While whole carcase beef has its own designated category, frozen quarters are not identified separately in trade data, but included in a broader category called “bone-in frozen beef.” Other items included in the same category include shortribs, shortloins and OPs.

In August, the bone-in frozen beef category saw Australian exports total 5234 tonnes, more than 5pc of total exports for the month, and 35pc higher than August two years ago.





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  1. Dean Jones, 15/09/2023

    In the 80s 90s as a family cartage (carcase) business we loaded bulls,steer,heavy cows bound for the independent boning rooms. Very little rail loading was available, lumping was the only option at freezers ,Wharf, air etc…we often lifted 50 ton each per day.. bagged beef it was known as and usually 12-14 fq ribbed which made them awkward to carry. Ahhh the good days !

  2. East West Line Parks, 14/09/2023

    Re Australian Export Frozen Beef quarters market history direct involvement correction.

    In 1972-5 I was in charge of the Registered Export establishment Northmeat Abattoirs at Katherine NT as the Boning Room Foreman.

    We exported frozen 1/4 beef 10-15% in total annually in a plastic internal tight wrap with stockinette outside covers to the Russian Federation.

    I think from memory it was to Valadostic E-Russia shipped ex Darwin on the excellent Knutsen Line Norwergan Refer Boats. Wonderful crew & ships. No Refer Containers then!

    The Russians sent a bi-annual trade delegation of 2 from their Embassy in Canberra to Katherine NT in this somewhat unique then export trade development ficaliation support.

    They liked the bone-in beef for “flavour & price” to make their Russian Borscht Beef & Beetroot Soups in particular etc.

    I well remember these two visiting likeable Russian big bears as we nick-named them.

    Naturally with the world reputations in play of both Russia and the NT, Alan Woods (then Northmeat Co Secretary and later one of Oz’s biggest live cattle exporters) & I were delighted to host our visitors for a few friendly Katherine 2 night stay over drinks (with some food, imagine) which became a international national & Oz NT regional reputational pride competition in the art of having a drink.

    Both Alan & I being 5ft 6ins but very well professionally experienced & trained with the 2 “Boris” + 6.2ft & big etc in trying to hold up their national pride.

    To cut to the quick chase at around 3AM in our GM’s incredibly well stocked 45kg a day ice machine etc residence’s private bar both Allan & I were quite amazed that they were still standing – maybe holding up just out of their national pride!

    So we introduced the Soccer Goal stand-off coup-de-grace, in producing a pack of fresh farm eggs putting 3 eggs in front of each party on the Bar. The challenge (something like the Crocodile Dundee Knife bit) now was to each eat 3 eggs, shell and all, in one by one session progressive segments.

    No trouble for Allan & I, but you see the blood drain from the 2 Boris’s Russian faces. It was like a best Cowboy Western on the draw.

    I took the first fresh egg shell and all into my mouth crunched it and swallowed etc, no trouble to the be followed by the first Boris Russian, he looked even worse & scared for such a big fellow, but with some great courage, intrepidition & difficulty he overcame his great digestion consumption & challenge in his state.

    Allan, followed in his expected professional consumption manner, then the 2nd Russian who was decisively more challenged & deeply red-faced etc… proceeded, dry reached etcetera, but he just made it, just. We could then see we had em!

    We had to finish em off and proceed to the 2nd fresh shell and all in mouth consumption egg! To cut to the chase once again one of the big bears was seen out side the GM’s Bar garden on his knees and calling for his Russian Birth Mother. We did not rejoice as friends, it was a sad, but great international top pecking order victory occurrence & occasion, to be sure!

    Their joint despatch, the next morning 2 hrs late into the chartered throbbing twin engine light plane to Darwin was somewhat troubling to see and pathetic, as good friends know and care for.

    Please Note while some story embellishment was applied, it is 95pc fact, and if Alan Woods is still alive somewhere, he will totally endorse it!

    Shane Condon

    Thanks for your comment, Shane. Alan passed ten years ago – here is Beef Central’s tribute to him. Editor

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