MSA Crusader sees Woolies move as ‘decisive turning point’

Jon Condon, 04/11/2011

Western Darling Downs cattleman Lee McNicholl, with steers typically worth an extra 20c/kg liveweight through MSA and breed premiumsIf there is an Australian beef producer more passionate about, or more doggedly determined to see the Meat Standards Australia grading system succeed, Beef Central is yet to meet him, or her.

Like him or loathe him, Western Darling Downs cattleman Lee McNicholl has been an MSA crusader over the past decade, fighting long and hard to see the program deliver on its considerable potential. And he hasn’t always had a lot of support.

In the early 2000s, when MSA had few friends and was being shunned by all of the nation’s major meat processors and retailers  as ‘lacking commercial relevance’,  Mr McNicoll would stand before MLA annual meetings dressed in a BBQ apron and carrying tongs, imploring the broader industry to get behind the scheme.

There was a genuine risk at that time that MSA would fold, through lack of commercial support.

By January next year, not only Woolworths, but most other significant corporate level supermarket retailers will have embraced the system.

The expanding Aldi supermarket network, through its Branaghan’s brand, for example is also fully integrated into MSA, as is the independently-owned IGA network, and the ‘new kid on the block,’ global discount retail giant, Costco.

With the exception of export-oriented Nippon Meat Packers and Kilcoy Pastoral Co, eight of the top ten beef processors in the country now apply MSA principles. Recent adopters have included the Hart family’s Warwick Bacon/John Dee processing business at Warwick, and Stanbroke Beef’s Grantham plant, which has ‘re-engaged’ with MSA after an absence.

In Lee McNicholl’s view, the war has been won.

“When I read Beef Central’s report last Friday that Woolworths is to vigorously embrace MSA across its 850 outlets, I came away with a sense of elation. I’m sure many other producers felt the same,” he said.

“This result has really been 20 years in the gestation,” he said. “The science behind the project started long before its launch in 1999.”

As a veterinarian by trade, Mr McNicholl perhaps understands the ‘pure science’ behind MSA better than the average Australian beef producer, and he continues to marvel at the way the industry has solved the complex challenge of delivering tenderness assurances by touching all points in the production chain.

“Make no mistake, this was a challenge of prodigious R&D proportions, that no other country in the world has gone close to matching,” he said.

He paid tribute to some of Australia’s early meat science pioneers like Ray Johnstone and Robin Shorthose who laid the foundations for what was to come, operating out of the Cannon Hill Meat Science laboratory.

“Other people like Rod Polkinghorne, Dugald Cameron, John Thompson and David Crombie (who championed the political side) are unsung heroes of what we see happening with MSA today, but a lot of the groundwork was started back in the 1970s and 80s. It’s been an accumulation of knowledge that has done it, and we need to pay tribute to those guys.”

Mr McNicholl pitches the significance of the Woolworths decision to adopt MSA as the equivalent of ‘scaling Everest.’

“It breaks-through the last level of resistance, which was at the major supermarket retail level.”

He said the comments made recently by Woolworths’ Pat McEntee (mis-spelled in last week’s Beef Central report – apologies to Pat – a Freudian slip in confusion with Gilbert McAntee, a former manager of Victoria River Downs)  indicated that MSA was entirely capable of delivering a true national, comprehensive beef grading system.

“Those knockers who continue to say that MSA is not capable of delivering such a system should now shut-up and rejoice in the fact that Australia has produced by far the best, most science-driven grading system on the planet.”

“The critics should join in celebrating MSA’s long fought-for, but ultimate success, and stop being compulsive knockers.” he said.

So what are the implications going forward?

Mr McNicholl said the sheer beef volume required by Woolworths (about 8500 YG steers and heifers weekly plus MSA supply from outside processors) would inevitably help drive greater MSA adoption among beef producers across Eastern Australia. It could also see existing MSA suppliers embracing the system more vigorously.

Other considerations could include impact on saleyards, largely considered ‘non-compatible’ with MSA supply. Longer-distance transport challenges to meet MSA limits could also come into strong focus, in order to broaden the MSA livestock catchment.

Thinking creatively, Mr McNicholl said the flexibility of MSA could see large, aligned retailers moving into a grassfed MSA offer, either as a different sub-brand to feature at retail, or as part of a normal seasonal supply process, where appropriate.

“The protection in eating quality performance through MSA is a wonderful opportunity for grassfed producers to get back into the supermarket-end of retail. They can stock a grassfed product with confidence, knowing it is going to perform.”   

“If there’s an adequate premium there, producers will now find pathways to deliver grassfed MSA cattle, whether it be through leucaena, silage or whatever.”

Breed content ‘prescriptions’ was another exciting area of potential change.

“If Woolworths embraces MSA in its purest form, it should consider abandoning specific requirements on breed type and content. Simply let the compliance rate and MSA boning groups deliver the outcome. Producers will quickly work out what works, and what doesn’t, breed-wise.”

“This could become a breed leveller, because MSA will find the good cattle, and good management systems, in all breeds. Producers will be able to use the genotypes that best suit their environment, and still be able to successfully produce MSA cattle across most of the continent.”

The MSA science would give end-users like Woolworths the confidence to use other breeds, delivering the outcome they are looking for, Mr McNicholl said.

“Essentially, if you have cattle that can do 0.7kg/day whole-of-life, and know you have Genestar tenderness genes in your cattle, you’re a strong chance of producing MSA-compliant cattle, regardless of location.”

“From what I understand at MSA killing sites like Biloela, they are getting a high percentage of higher Indicus cattle through in boning groups 11 and under – maybe not purebreds, but plenty carrying 75pc content, because they are hitting the growth targets. That ameliorates the content issue.”

Days on feed might also become more flexible, given MSA experience. Forward-conditioned steers might need only 50 days to meet Woolworths’ specs, instead of a mandatory 70. Older steers, perhaps four teeth, might also find an entry-point to Woolworths at some future time, still protected by MSA pathways, as data continues to accumulate.

Ultimately, MSA ossification should also eliminate the need to grade cattle based on dentition, which displayed considerable variability.

“It opens up a whole lot of opportunities for everybody in the industry, in delivering to a minimum acceptable eating standard, with different pathways for different breeds, environments and production systems,” Mr McNicholl said.




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