Beef producers themselves must be the catalysts for change in a growing push to drive the controversial dentition assessment out of the beef industry, an industry gathering was told recently.
Rolleston cattleman and former Cattle Council of Australia member Ian McCamley continued his public crusade to remove dentition from carcase sorting systems during an address to AgForce Cattle’s recent annual general meeting in Gladstone.
He suggested that removal of dentition from processor grids, and allowing cattle to be graded purely for eating quality under science-based MSA assessment would cause a massive shift in Australian beef eating quality, provide benefit across all sectors.
“We need to adopt a pure driver of eating quality in beef carcases, rather than the bastardised version we currently have influenced by other overlaying factors,” he told the gathering.
“We’ve got the world’s-best science at our disposal through MSA, we just need to have the motivation to change the system. It’s the system that’s the problem: It allows different sectors to do what they do. Processors work on a margin basis, and we generally find if a processor can make his $50 or $60 a head, he’s pretty satisfied, and is not heavily motivated to want to change things that currently stand.”
That left it up to producers themselves to deliver on change necessary to improve the system.
Mr McCamley said MSA was a science-based guide to improving eating quality, but the frustrating part was that other attributes (i.e. dentition) were overlaid across it, for a variety of reasons.
He posed the question, Why don’t all the best eating quality cattle receive the best price?
“If somebody from outside this industry had a look at what goes on, they would not put up with what we as an industry put up with,” he said.
“Ultimately the specifications that are overlaid after a carcase is MSA graded have a great affect on the price the producer ultimately receives.”
He discussed a range of measurements, but it was in the area of dentition that Mr McCamley has greatest concern. He described it as “the most stupid, unscientific, fanatical, ill-informed downgrading measurement ever used on Australian cattle.”
As one of the first producers to push MSA cattle through the Teys Biloela plant when it started processing for MSA, it did not take him long to start comparing impacts from processor AusMeat carcase grid requirements, with those required by MSA.
“Putting them side-by-side, we started to analyse how our cattle were really going. We had these cattle that were getting discounted, and started to examine why.”
“When we got our first animal to grade MSA boning group 1 (the best eating quality possible) we actually copped a discount for him. The reason? He showed six teeth,” Mr McCamley said.
Based on grids a fortnight ago, he said a 310kg PCAS two-tooth carcase in MSA boning group 8 was worth $1240, while a 310kg PCAS six-tooth carcase in MSA boning group 1 was worth $1069.50.
“That’s a discount of $170 on a carcase with far superior eating quality,” he said.
“Why are we doing this to ourselves?” Mr McCamley asked.
If those same carcases had 6mm of fat instead of 7+, the difference becomes even greater – a $232 discount for a carcase in boning group 1 – the ‘holy grail’ of meat quality – against a carcase that just scrapes into the bottom.
Mr McCamley showed a graph comparing MSA boning group (eating quality) on his first 4000 cattle graded for MSA, in three groupings, for cattle showing 0-2, 3-4, and 5-6 teeth. The result was virtually identical, with all three recoding an average boning group around 7.5.
“It’s almost a flat line between the different dentition groups,” he said. “The YG cattle (two-teeth or less) were in fact recording exactly the same MSA eating quality as the PRs (5 or 6 teeth).”
Under Teys’ Biloela’s new grid format, the same result kept coming up for Mr McCamley’s cattle.
“We’ve done it to death in our own operations.”
Another recent line of 321 bought cattle showed the YG steers (0-2t) 84 head in total, averaging MSA boning group 7.68. Their YP cohorts (3-4t) totalling 47 head, averaged a little better at MSA boning group 7.58 and the PR steers (5-7 teeth) numbering 72 head, averaged best of all at MSA boning group 7.53.
“But if you looked at the price difference between the three groups, it reflects exactly the opposite. It’s blood crazy,” he said.
Mr McCamley said part of the problem was that the industry still equated ‘8-teeth’ with ‘old’.
“It can mean old, if it is measured in an aged cow. But it does not necessarily apply.”
To illustrate this, he provided an example of a Central Queensland Brangus breeder colleague who sells his entire turnoff of grass finished steers in one line every year.
“In the kill sheets he gets a few milk-tooths, a few twos, a fair few fours and sixes, and some number eights. But the funny thing is, he uses a 60-day mating period: Not one of the calves is more than 60 days older than any other.”
Within that producer’s group sold a few months ago, one eight-tooth steer, in MSA boning group 2, no less, received 275c/kg, while a YG steer (either 0-2t) in MSA boning group 8 was paid 345c/kg. A 70c/kg spread.
“We have to move on from this crazy situation, and the only people that are going to make that happen are us,” he said.
Mr McCamley quoted results from recent MSA research into the value of dentition in the prediction of eating quality in MSA-graded carcases.
Based on a striploin sample from almost 27,000 MSA carcases, the MQ4 score across different cooking methods (grill, roast, slow-cook and stir fry) showed little variance between 0 and 6-teeth cattle, and even 8 teeth in many examples. The same applied with a rump (higher connective tissue) sample.
“Are we seeing a pattern here? This is the science making these calls – not producers saying how to run the industry,” he said.
“The scientists’ conclusion is that the relationship between ossification and dentition is only moderate, at best. In fact they say in MSA graded carcases, the addition of dentition adds very little to the prediction of eating quality, and those results hold true across all cooking methods,” Mr McCamley said.
“When they say ‘very little’, the correlation in real terms is negative,” he said. That means that the cattle with more teeth are eating better than the ones with less.”
Mr McCamley said the ‘milk and two-tooth mantra’ that processors, wholesalers, supermarkets and butchers stuck with, continued to damage the industry.
“Ask them if they know anything about the science-based results from cattle with more teeth and they put the shutters up, simply saying, ‘no, no, we only want 0-2 tooth cattle,” he said.
Part of the problem was that processors operated on a ‘margin focus’.
“Buy them for this, sell them for that, you’ve got a margin. Really, does a processor want to pay $1500 for a bullock if he can buy it for $800, and still make a $70 margin on it? Supermarkets are the same: they work on a minimum spec, and add a bit on as their margin. It’s not rocket science, but if there is going to be any change in this area of carcase assessment, it is only going to be driven by the producer.”
Impact seen also at consumer level
The distortions caused by overlaying dentition over science-based MSA assessment were also impacting at consumer level, Mr McCamley argued.
“The system as it currently stands means there is not enough MSA product available, because supply is currently restricted to 0-2 tooth cattle. Harvesting cattle for MSA only from 0-2 tooths, even though the science says it does not help deliver a better eating quality outcome, forces companies to put a much broader range of product in the same carton. Essentially, they have to drop down in the boning group quality range, in order to get enough product in the box.”
“That can confuse the consumer. It means the same tray in the chilled cabinet in the supermarket can have one steak on it from a carcase with an MQ4 score of 46.5 – just scraping into the MSA acceptable range – while the second steak might be from a carcase with an MQ4 score of 72, and eats unbelievably well.”
Mr McCamley wants the industry to focus on key science-based eating quality drivers such as marbling, ossification, and in the case of northern cattle, Indicus content, without being corrupted by the likes of dentition.
“We compete with the US on the international beef export stage, yet the US industry does not use dentition as a sorting tool. As a result we’re fighting with one arm tied behind our back,” he said.
“Research shows that if we focus on selection for marbling, we get a nine-fold increase in driving eating quality performance higher than focussing on carcase weight. If we focus on Indicus content, we also get a nine-fold increase over carcase weight, while a focus on ossification delivers a 4.5 times greater impact than carcase weight.”
Removal of the dentition measurement from processor grids, allowing cattle to be graded purely for eating quality under MSA assessment would cause a massive shift in Australian beef eating quality, Mr McCamley told the AgForce Cattle gathering.
“Producers would know exactly what to do to produce the animals that eat the best – they wouldn’t have all these other confusing issues like dentition overlaying that, which add nothing. It would also in some cases mean producers would hold cattle longer, to express their full MSA eating quality potential, instead of being harvested too early, for fear that they might cut their teeth.”
“Equally as importantly, it would also allow all these other MSA cuts to be harvested out of everything above the YG (0-2 tooth) categories, with YP, PR and SS cipher beef. Suddenly, it means that the industry could lift the bottom of the YG cattle, because supply would be so much greater, or in fact directed into another market, increasing consistency within categories.”
“Suddenly, there could be enough Five Star or Four Star product available for companies to justify developing a separate brand for them, rather than shandying it in with Three Star the way it currently is.”
Such a move could conceivably be the biggest shift the industry has seen in the eating quality part of the industry, since the launch of MSA in 1997.
“But for anything to change, it needs to come from us (producers). I struggle in my conversations on this topic with those further down the chain, at the meat end of the business.”
“We also need to recognise that AusMeat is largely controlled by the Australian Meat Industry Council. AusMeat is owned by MLA and the Australian Meat Processor Corporation. If MLA is sitting there, as the service provider to the industry, do you think they are going to stop AMPC and AMIC having their way?”
“At any of the AusMeat meetings I go to, there is always four or five AMIC representatives, and one or two from Cattle Council. That makes it terribly hard to get any of these reforms through. There’s sheepmeat representatives and pork producers sitting in the room on the Australian Meat Industry Language and Standards Committee, for god’s sake.”
“Do you really think they have any motivation to help drive these reforms for beef?”
“It’s a tough gig, but it must be done, because we are the margin-takers in all this. But we do need MLA resources in this, because there are limited numbers of us to drive it.”
Ultimately, such a move would absolutely benefit the whole of industry, Mr McCamley said.
“Nobody needs to be frightened about it.”
“Bring on the industry White Paper on carcase assessment, I say, and let’s look at what Australia and the world needs in terms of a carcase specification language, that is science-based and which guides us towards producing better quality beef, more consistently, to better satisfy consumers.”
“Satisfied consumers equals greater demand, and greater price.”
Is Oss any better than dentition?
Cattle Council of Australia chief executive Jed Matz cautioned the meeting not to see ossification as a ‘silver bullet’ in any debate about the value of dentition.
Science showed that both dentition and ossification were poor indicators of age, Mr Matz said.
“International markets often have a requirement around age verification, as part of BSE safeguards, for example. At the moment, dentition, rightly or wrongly, is used by Australia to provide age verification. If we take dentition out of the specs, we may need to come up with another indicator. We might need a third system, given that oss is just as bad as dentition in determining age.”
Queensland beef producer David Hill said Australia rode on its access to export markets, and currently used dentition in what he described as a ‘self-imposed restriction to trade.’
“These other suppliers that we are competing against don’t use dentition. America puts their product into Europe under an ossification system which is no more accurate than what we use in Australia. So you can’t sell that argument: it’s apples and apples, not apples and oranges,” Mr Hill said.
“I agree that the complicating factor in this debate is age verification,” Mr Matz said.
“We could use oss for that, because that’s what the US uses, but maybe we can come up with something else which is more accurate again, and easier to verify for age through the supply chain,” he said.