A SERIES of changes will take place within Meat Standards Australia later this year, as the now 20-year-old grading system continues to evolve to meet changing consumer tastes and market applications.
The upgrade includes features that will impact right across the production chain, with some of direct significance at producer level. All will help broaden MSA’s exposure to the market.
The changes will be embedded over a three-month window, as the 41 MSA-accredited processors across Australia transition into the upgrade between early June and the end of September this year.
MSA is mapping out a producer education campaign to support the upcoming changes, as well as working closely with individual processors and their supply chains. More details on this below.
MSA operations manager Sarah Strachan outlined the upcoming changes to the MSA beef program during a recent briefing to the AgForce Cattle board in Brisbane. Here’s a quick summary of what’s coming up:
With the explosion in interest among passionate ‘foodie’ consumers that’s occurred in the past few years in new cooking techniques, several new cook methods will be added within the MSA eating quality prediction model. These include the popular ‘Texas BBQ’ low and slow cooking method, sous vide baths and combi-ovens, now widely used in larger food service industry applications.
The greater adoption across the industry of seam-cutting of beef primals into smaller sub-primals that each perform differently in eating quality is also being recognised in upcoming MSA changes (click here to view earlier report). Newer cuts that previously did not carry an MSA eating quality claim, such as the flatiron steak and petit tender, and several other cuts from the chuck primal, will now carry an MSA eating quality claim.
As more MSA-derived product penetrates export markets (for example, through the use of the Eating Quality Graded cipher, instead of dentition based quality ciphers – click here to view earlier story), the program’s eating quality predictions have been extended to include longer aging periods.
In markets like the Middle East, for example, it is not uncommon for Australian chilled beef to spend up to a month on the water getting to its destination, and the upcoming MSA model additions are designed to account for that, out to 50 days aging.
For an exporter knowing they have a 35 or 40 day transport aging window up their sleeve, the adjustment will allow them to pack export product that will meet MSA requirements to optimum effect. The aging extension is expected to have little or no relevance on the domestic market, however.
The upcoming MSA model change of greatest direct significance to beef producers concerns the assessment of Bos Indicus content and its proxy, hump height.
Currently, beef producers consigning MSA cattle must make a declaration on % Bos Indicus content, via the MSA vendor declaration attached to the NVD.
While its possible for mobs to be split into two or more groupings, for mixed mobs being consigned as a single line, the animals with highest estimated % bos indicus becomes the ‘default’ for the group.
In recent years, an option was introduced to use the MSA grader’s hump-height assessment to ‘predict’ the indicus content. This has been widely used on mixed indicus content consignment mobs.
“Under the current system, it is using hump height (as assessed by the grader) to predict the Bos indicus content in each animal. The changes to the system will bypass that component,” Ms Strachan said.
“We are no longer trying to predict Bos Indicus content, because the MSA consumer sensory research clearly shows that hump height, itself, has a direct relationship with eating quality, without having to align it with indicus content,” she said.
The MSA research has also compared the accuracy of hump height (measured with a simple ruler) with a genomic test in the ability to predict eating quality, accounting for indicus contentand found the two were ‘very close’ in level of accuracy. Click here to view this R&D report.
Given these developments, Beef Central asked why there was still a need for a producer to declare indicus content at all, and why the sole arbiter should not be the MSA grader’s hump height assessment.
In response, Ms Strachan said there were some examples of MSA slaughter cattle with ‘no indicus content,’ that could be discounted on MSA eating quality scores on the basis of hump height measurement alone.
“As a result, we did not want to take anything away from the program, but simply make it more accurate,” she said. “Due to the variation in hump heights in true bos taurus cattle, using 0% declaration, backed up with hump height, provides the most accurate outcome for these cattle”
Using British or European breeds as an example, some sub-types within the breeds can be quite heavily muscled, and can exhibit more hump than others. The new MSA model also has an in-built tolerance for hump height, adjusting as the animal gets heavier in carcase weight.
For a carcase that presented as a British or European breed, but had a hump height outside the tolerance range for its carcase weight, the model would over-ride the declaration and adjust the eating quality scores, Ms Strachan said.
“So even though some cattle may be declared at zero indicus, there is still an inbuilt protection in the model.”
The current MSA model is described as ‘quite conservative’ in its approach to hump height, predicting the eating quality outcomes that will minimise any risk for the consumer. ‘
“By avoiding trying to establish any relationship with indicus content, and instead applying hump height for each individual animal directly to the model, it will be a lot more accurate,” Ms Strachan said. “Both producer and processor will benefit from that.”
Currently, hump height scores are included on an individual animal basis in MSA grading feedback sheets, and can also be factored-in when producers use the MSA index calculator. In this case, they can see what effect on MSA index a change to hump height would have on their scores.
“Looking at a future MSA feedback report, everything will look exactly the same – it’s just the maths that sits behind it that will change,” Ms Strachan said. “No producer will see a drastic change in their MSA index results, for example, because the one measurement has an effect across 40 different cuts under the MSA model. It is more fine-tuning.”
She said the benefit would primarily be seen in those MSA slaughter cattle that sat somewhere on the spectrum between bos Taurus and ‘high content Bos indicus.’
“Once you get into higher bos indicus, the hump height consideration maxes out,” she said. “It’s not a continuous scale, so while hump height measurement might keep increasing, the eating quality impact no longer changes, beyond a certain point.”
“It’s those crossbred type cattle, that represent a large segment of MSA slaughter, especially in Queensland, where the change will have greatest relevance,” Ms Strachan said.
Another interesting outcome from MSA’s hump height/tenderness research is that in some of those more muscular straight bos Taurus cattle that have an elevated hump height, they also have been shown to have a negative impact on eating quality.
In future, MSA suppliers will simply be asked to make a declaration confirming that a line of cattle carry zero bos indicus content, or they do not. For cattle where the answer is unclear, they will simply tick ‘no.’
In another important MSA development coming soon, producers who have cattle being custom-fed in feedlots for MSA programs, or whose cattle are away on other people’s properties on agistment before slaughter, will in future be guaranteed access to MSA carcase feedback.
Prior to this, that feedback has only been able to be sent to the property (or feedlot) from where they were consigned for slaughter. From later this year, feedback will automatically be made available to the ‘owners’ of those agisted or custom-fed cattle, rather than private arrangements having to be made for access.
Some upgrades are also planned for the MyMSA producer feedback portal in coming months.
As part of a facelift designed to make the platform more user-friendly, it will include a new feature, called the Opportunity MSA index to be shown on carcase feedback reports. It will provide a ‘what if’ scenario, where producers will be able to seeprojected MSA score impact from applying changes to their production system.
“We are seeing some processors and brand managers become more sophisticated around their MSA use – in some cases segregating out different quality levels within the spectrum of beef produced within a brand program, and paying different levels for each (see earlier report),” Ms Strachan said.
“This new Opportunity Index will allow producers to see what ‘could have been,’ if more of their cattle had met the MSA minimum requirements.”
Currently, if a producer’s cattle do not meet MSA requirements, they automatically receive a ‘zero’ score on the MSA index in their feedback report. (This applies specifically to pH and fat cover – failure on a company-controlled specs means they still receive an MSA Index score).
But available only through MyMSA, those reports will now show what the outcome could have been, if they had fixed up any failure issues surrounding pH and fat cover.
Knowing the price incentives offered by their MSA processor partners, producers would then be able to do a back-of-the-envelope exercise to monetise the ‘lost opportunity’ in their consignments, and look at ways of shifting more cattle from ungrades into the premium cells on the grid.
More details on this closer to launch time.