Big scope for more value-added work in beef sector

Jon Condon, 24/10/2012


General manager Brett McMullen checks a VA product under development with a staffmember in Earlee's test kitchenThe beef industry has a long way to go to catch to up with the value-adding momentum seen in chicken – but it offers significantly greater opportunity, according to a major blender and value-added ingredient manufacturer.

Brisbane’s Earlee Products was established in the 1990s by meat scientist, Bob Hamilton, who worked for 13 years at the CSIRO meat science laboratory at Cannon Hill.

He started with a range of lines for functional ingredients, including injection mixes, corned beef cures, a range of coatings and flavourings, sausage meals and other ingredients.

But soon, Earlee found itself competing against large multi-nationals producing cheap, high turnover, low margin run-of the mill commodity ingredients.

“We lost some big contracts at that time purely on price, rather than quality,” group general manager Brett McMullen said.

“Instead of being in a race to the bottom to make the cheapest ingredient, we decided to look for other, more specialised areas we could service,” he said.

Because the white meat protein industry was starting to zero-in on value-adding at the time, it was in this segment that Earlee saw greatest opportunity.

“At that point, value adding in beef was almost non-existent. People thought VA in beef meant producing a thick sausage or a thin sausage, or maybe a meatball,” Mr McMullen said.

There was also still some hangover from earlier days, such as an underlying suspicion among consumers of ‘coated’ meat in a shop window, which some interpreted as yesterday’s raw product that had got ‘tired’ and was now being recycled in a masked form.

After developing its VA expertise in chicken since the 1990s, Earlee is now increasingly applying more of that experience and knowledge within the red meat sector.

“There is still huge scope to do more with VA in the red meat industry,” Mr McMullen said.

“It’s a bigger animal, for starters, meaning there countless more cuts and body parts to work with than a chicken.”

“Although chicken in many ways is well suited for value-adding, being a bland meat that takes a whole range of flavours, it gets fairly limited in what’s available. There’s thigh meat, wings, legs and breasts, and not much else.”

“In contrast, look at what the beef and lamb industry has at its disposal – a huge range of items, with a lot of variety. There’s differences in dimensions, tenderness, meat that requires different cooking times and techniques, different fat and lean cuts that suit different purposes – the possibilities are endless,” he said.

Beef 'spoiled by access'

So what has red meat been so slow to take up the VA cues that white meat has been so successful with?

Mr McMullen said a lot of it was to do with the fact that Australia had in the past been “spoiled by having access to pretty good beef that was pretty cheap,” in a global context.

“Retailers, food service operators and others did not have to try that hard to sell each item. The white meat guys, on the other hand, have had to work to sell all their turnoff and make it interesting.”

Mr McMullen said many of the VA principles applied to chicken also applied to beef, and sometimes more so. Vacuum-packaging in beef provided some VA opportunities that did not exist so much with chicken, for example.

He said by definition, value-adding should represent additional value for the consumer, in terms of convenience, taste, tenderness or some other value, as well as a value-added benefit of the raw material for the processor.

“For example, slow cooking is very popular in Australia at present. But the problem is, by definition, it takes a long time. There has to be value-added opportunity in doing more of the slow-cooking in advance for the modern customer, in handy heat-and-serve forms. That represents a value to them. Lamb shanks are just starting to pioneer that space, but it can be applied to countless other items like ox tail.”    

Test kitchen/process evaluation facility

As part of its VA development work, Earlee Products has established not only a large scale test kitchen/laboratory at its Murarrie headquarters, but also a sophisticated process evaluation room, carrying a  wide-array of specialised equipment used for VA development work.

This includes large-volume sous vide baths, mechanical tenderisers and injectors, steam ovens, extrusion pumps, and smoking and packaging equipment. The facility represents a significant investment, but is seen as a core part of the Earlee business.

Earlee often partners with Meat & Livestock Australia in product research and development.

He said MLA personnel like David Carew (MLA product Innovation manager) played an important intermediary role in helping open more processors’ eyes to VA opportunities.

“A lot of beef processors up to now have approached VA as something to be done with the leftover bits and pieces. That’s still part of it, with trim, and carcase utilisation is critically important, but there is so much more out there that can be done.”

“Ideally, it should be about going out into the marketplace and defining a need, and then setting about producing the product, based on the optimum specific cut and VA technique, to fill it,” Mr McMullen said.

“If the developer sees a place in the market based around quick, easy, healthy dining, the challenge is to find the right sub-primal or muscle, and the right technique, to deliver it.”

Earlee’s on-site processing and test kitchen facility is in constant use exploring future VA possibilities for itself and clients.

Some of the nation’s biggest beef processors have done developmental work at the facility. Unlike the larger US beef industry which often support their own large R&D teams and development facilities, many processors and further-processors in Australia did not have VA development work within their skill-set.

While a lot of the VA work being varied out at Earlee is with forequarter meats, Mr McMullen said just because a processor had a lot of forequarter meat to dispose of, did not limit VA work to this end of the carcase.

“Not all cattle are going to make AusMeat, MSA or meatworks specifications. There may well be rump muscles and other hindquarter meats from those non-grade animals that are best suited to value-adding work,” he said. “It still has to be what the consumer is looking for.”

One of the challenges Earlee sometimes faces with collaborators is in getting them to shift from the idea of, “How cheap can we make it?” to “How good can we make it?,” and only then looking for ways to reduce the production cost.   

A good example of recent product development is the Reuben Junior corned brisket product, discussed in this morning’s companion story, “Reuben sandwich for lunch, anyone?”

Not all products hit market bullseye 

Not all the Earlee VA projects are successful, however. Some, in fact, are perhaps too far ahead of the market and current consumer expectations.

A good example was a shelf-stable flavoured, cooked, beef mince formed in a small block, with a 12-month lifespan in the cupboard. It was designed for use over a cup of instant noodles, and came in a number of flavours including bolognaise and chili con carne.

Despite being world-first technology, it did not sell, because of resistance to its cost.

“It was the right product, but the wrong market,” Mr McMullen said.

“People who buy instant noodles are looking for a quick, and most importantly, cheap, meal or snack. In that segment we had to compete with a 20g sachet of cheap flavouring powder, made in Malaysia. Consumers in that segment never wanted to add a more costly flavoured mince ingredient, even if it was far superior, because their primary intention was to have a cheap meal.”

But that shelf-stable mince still held strong potential – it was just a matter of finding the right market applications, he said.

“What’s technically possible is one thing, but what’s saleable in today’s market can be another,” he said.

One of Earlee’s perceived advantages is that it formulates all its own ingredients on-site. That means if a customer wants an exclusive low-salt version of a marinade or rub made, for example, it can be on the shelf tomorrow.  Many products are made to specific, exclusive formulations for each customer, rather than being brought off-the-shelf from overseas. 


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