Rod Polkinghorne: Why beef cuts should get the chop

James Nason, 15/08/2018

Rod Polkinghorne, Michael Crowley, John Webster, Jean Francois Hocquette and David Pethick participate in a panel session during the 20 years of MSA forum in Melbourne. 


Twenty years after the creation of the consumer-focused Meat Standards Australia program, meat eating quality pioneer Rod Polkinghorne says while much has been achieved, there is much more that still needs to be done.

“The scary bit is we have been at it for 20 years, but we have really only just started,” he told a forum celebrating 20 years of the MSA program held as part of the International Conference of Meat Science and Technology in Melbourne earlier this week.

Offering his thoughts on where MSA will be in another 20 years, Mr Polkinghorne said that by 2040 beef should no longer be sold by individual cut, such as rump steak or round steak or tenderloin, but by meal outcome descriptions.

Traditional cuts ‘were a nuisance’ because eating quality outcomes could vary dramatically within each cut, and cut names gave consumers little information about the meal outcome they were really seeking.

Data from 97,000 different samples of meat demonstrated a 70 point range in eating quality from best to the worse.

“So which rump steak did you want, the 30 point one or the 80 point one?,” he asked.

What consumers wanted was not a rump steak but a “bloody good meal”, a product that, like any contemporary consumer product, was consistent, simple to purchase, will perform as it is expected to, and for which paying a higher price will equate to higher quality.

Consumers made value judgements when buying an economy or a business class airline ticket or when choosing one of four different types of petrol at the bowser, understanding that a different price provided a different result.

Right now the red meat industry could deliver an experience where consumers could buy meat simply according to what they felt like cooking and eating, and whether the occasion was very special or a good every day meal, by selling on meal-outcomes instead of individual cuts.

“No one wants a fail, you should be able to go straight there and say this is what I want, it is a good average occasion, I want a stir fry, there it is.

“Why would you describe it as anything else? I am sure we will be told there is a whole lot of tradition but that is the reality, we can deliver that sort of simplicity right now in beef.”

Mr Polkinghorne was doing this in his own butcher shop in Melbourne over a decade ago.

The Polkinghorne’s meat retail outlet in Melbourne pioneered the implementation of a ‘whole of supply chain’ branded beef model based on eating quality principles. Under the Polkinghorne brand, a system for branded beef production, processing and retailing was developed, which included deboning, retail cut fabrication and cooked meal production. The concept was built around eating quality outcomes with meat sold on results-based  product descriptions. Image: Birkenwood International.

All beef sold in his Polkinghorne’s concept store was produced in a closed supply chain from Mr Polkinghorne’s farm.

The shop had zero cuts.

Instead of selling beef by traditional cut name, it had cabinets that offered beef according to cooking method, such as ‘grills’, with consumers able to choose 5-star grilling meat, 4-star or 3-star.

In 2010 5-star grills were priced at $60/kg, 4-star at $45/kg and 3-star at $23/kg.

“And in that cabinet we actually used to run out of tenderloins, surprise surprise, the dearest thing.

“We said we have another cut (spinalis, or rib eye cap) that will eat the same as tenderloin.

“We ran a survey of our shoppers, we said we can buy in tenderloin that we can’t guarantee because we didn’t grow it, or we can use this other cut, what would you like? The 99 percent response was, ‘use the other cut’.

“So we put 5-star steak out there, some from spinalis, some from tenderloin, and every now and then some from a cube role 5 star, it went in the cabinet at $65 and it always sold, so it can be done.”

Mr Polkinghorne predicted that as the move from a commodity focus to a consumer focus accelerates the reliance on cuts will slowly disappear, replaced by multiple muscles packed under common end use descriptions.

Branded beef meal portions will offer ‘pan ready’ guaranteed outcomes for different cooking styles requiring no cooking knowledge.

‘Ready to Heat’ and ‘Ready to Eat’ meals will also be offered under brand-based eating quality categories supported by provenance and built on an eating quality base.

“We know that cuts are just a damn nuisance, why do we insist on using them?

“What we’re selling here is a result. You look at this pack and it says put it in the oven at 160 degrees for 30 minutes. It has got to be that simple and it can be.

“It is not a quiz, it is not about this is Wagyu, it has this much marbling, it has been aged this long, this is the cut, now you figure out how it is going to eat, and it is your fault if you get it wrong.

“What is the result for God’s sake? You don’t need to know much about a bottle of Coke or a bottle of Pepsi.”

The value to the consumer is simplicity and a guaranteed eating quality outcome with no specialist understanding of meat cuts or cooking knowledge required.

The value to the red meat industry, beyond the critical goal of satisfying consumers, selling more beef and increasing industry revenue, is selling every carcase portion according to its optimum consumer value and realising the full potential value of every carcase.

Branding by flavour

Mr Polkinghorne said the industry also now knows enough about flavour to underpin beef branding in future that will be based on flavour difference.

“I believe we will unscramble flavour enough to be able to say ‘this is a really rich beefy flavour’.

“It might be a really well marbled grainfed animal and it will score say 67 points on a flavour scale, or a milk fed vealer that is 10 months old straight off its mother might score 67 points for flavour too, but it will not taste like the other one.

“So we’re saying okay think of a wheel, this is 67 points for flavour, what is the note, is this a red wine or a white one? Give it to the marketers, how do I describe this sort of flavour? Let’s think of a name, a marketing term, ‘this has got traces of walnuts, it is rich, it is beefy etc…

“If we can get this flavour lexicon out there that is in real consumer terms, we can sell by are they tender, what is the flavour, eating quality, the juiciness – just don’t call it round steak, all round steaks don’t taste the same.

“A round steak from a Brahman bull in northern Australia to a 16-year-old cow in France is not going to taste the same, but if we can drop it into say four categories of basic flavour types, we have really got something we can market, that is the notion we’re heading for.”

‘We’re talking about putting meat that is the same in the same box’

Mr Polkinghorne said the use of objective carcase measurement will also help to reduce the operational complexity that is currently involved in selling meat.

“We’re talking about putting meat that is the same in the same box,” he said.

“So we have three different muscles there and they are all four star stir fry, why do we put a name on the box, why don’t we call it four star stir fry?

“So it is less codes, instead of 10,000 codes it is 1000, 500, a retail cabinet could be 20 not 200.

“So with that simplification where we get back to an outcome, and with value-based payment if we actually pay for those carcases what they’re worth that will drive change, it will improve livestock and product branding and will increase profitability.”



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  1. Patrick Burgers, 20/08/2018

    The reason why this would not work in Europe is because the Australian beef cuts are sold in restaurants , not via retail to end users. The comparision to a gas station makes no sense, as people will not put diesel one day and gasoline the next day. There is no choise. Wereas with beef there are many options. It will work though as an add/on . You order a sirloin, the options are , tasty/tender ,or tasty-more bite etc.. That works as a guidance.

  2. john cooper, 18/08/2018

    People are listening and thats why we are getting the comments .Rod makes a good point in this method of description bit it could only apply to our domestic market as has been indicated and then it would have a very limited uptake. Traditional descriptions will remain because of our heavily weighted export trade and our need to be flexible to supply different markets when needed,this of course applies to considerable stock in store.

  3. Paul D. Butler, 16/08/2018

    More great comments from a true industry leader and innovator…….only question is………

    Why don’t folks listen??

  4. Alisdair Robertson, 15/08/2018

    Over the last decade iv heard many different opinions on Mr Polkinghorne s Butcher shop/shops,
    But this is the first time iv read details about them,?
    Is it possible to have some more information about the shop /shops , closed supply chain,?
    How many shops, when, where,?
    How many beef bodies from his own supply chain a week,?
    What weight where they dressed,?what breed,? How old,at Proccessing,? What % dark cutters a week,?
    Where the male cattle processed as entire males( bull meat)
    And the farm, how many breeders, how many bulls,? How many acres,? Where the finished cattle processed , finished on standing grass all year round,? Or grain finished, where hgp used,?
    I look forward to gathering this information as Mr Polkinghorne has been such a huge part of driving the MSA programs ,?

  5. Peter Dunn, 15/08/2018

    Peter Hamilton is correct about export beef, but at a local level Rod Polkinghorne seems to be focussed on his small Melbourne market, wanting the whole of Australia to adjust to a labelling system which will advantage his Melbourne market, albeit that in theory of his proposal is a good thought. The reality is that John and Mary Citizen, who form the majority of Australian buyers, want VALUE FOR MONEY. They look for value for money and they purchase what they consider is value for money. They make their judgements on the type of cut, because they were brought up knowing what to do with the various cuts, and on the appearance (which is why supermarkets give so much attention to presentation), which is their final determining factor. The process of introducing a star rating is not a bad idea but it requires significantly more than a thought bubble.

  6. Paul Troja, 15/08/2018

    Rod has his talents but it is not marketing, and MSA is the only independent grading system hence is the reason for its support

  7. Richard Sellers, 15/08/2018

    Agree with last comment. With more than 50% of meat exported Australia is a player in a world market. It would make more sense to adopt international trade names for cuts rather than try and reinvent the wheel.
    As far as Rod”s suggestion goes and how it went in his melb butcher shop, if I recall it went broke.

    It’s a long time ago, Richard, but to our recollection the Polkinghorne’s butchery business was sold to the Australian Agricultural Co. Editor

  8. Peter Hamilton, 15/08/2018

    that may be fine for a “standard” bunch of Aussie customers? what about the > 50% of beef exported? Try telling your Japanese or Taiwanese or Jordanese or a chef in Sydney they cant buy Striploins anymore.. most chefs want to make up their own mind what cuts suit which dish..

    Australia ships beef to how many countries? and how many local recipes do they have?

  9. Val Dyer, 15/08/2018

    Agree. Definitely another way to describe meat for home cooking.

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