THERE’S been a lot of dialogue over perceived flaws and inconsistencies within description and payment systems used under the industry’s AusMeat language over the past year or so.
The issue came to a head this time last year, when there was uproar over the application of hefty butt profile discounts on championship-standard cattle entered in Brisbane Show’s elite 100-day grainfed paddock to palate performance class.
It was little wonder that hackles got raised, when some hand-picked grainfed steer entries were penalised more than $100 a head by the processor involved, allegedly for presenting with D-butts more commonly associated with store-conditioned boner cows. Click here to read Beef Central’s report filed on the issue this time last year, “Butt profile: Weapons of mass discounting, or legitimate carcase sorting tool?”
Elsewhere, there have been long-simmering producer concerns surrounding the use of dentition over ossification as a measurement of physiological maturity in slaughter cattle. Agitators say it is duplicitous, unnecessary and wasteful, gauged by product eating quality predictions made by MSA. Here’s another earlier story on that topic.
These and other AusMeat language issues were arguably the catalyst for the establishment of a broad-church review in September last year to look into the elements included in, and application of the Ausmeat language across the beef supply chain.
Beef Central foreshadowed the establishment of such a review in this article: “Butt shape: Is it time for a broader grading/carcase assessment review?”
The best part of 12 months has passed since, so where are things up to?
Firstly, a quick history lesson, and refresher on what the language is all about:
- The AusMeat Language is a common objective language that describes carcase traits and meat products. It has direct application to international and domestic retail and food service customers; processors, wholesalers and others selling beef on the international and domestic stage; and producers, lotfeeders and others in the supply chain. Ultimately, it is designed to ensure that beef customers get what they want, every time they order it.
- AusMeat, the gatekeeper of the industry language, is owned and controlled jointly by Meat & Livestock Australia and the Australian Meat Processor Corporation. While modifications are made to the language from time to time, many key elements have been in place since the language was launched as part of AusMeat in 1987.
It quickly became apparent last year that all parties across the supply chain needed to be actively engaged in any AusMeat language review for it to adequately service the entire supply chain’s needs.
A review based on the production sector’s views only, for example, would run the risk of ignoring critically important components of the language, as used daily by beef exporters in trading. Most international beef trading systems are based on current AusMeat language criteria, and to simply change them mid-stride at the behest of the production sector could create enormous disruption in trade, critics warned.
What was agreed was that AMPC and MLA would co-fund a review and research project to examine the current AusMeat language. A group of industry stakeholders – not necessarily just peak council representatives – would be asked to sit on a review panel, called the beef language steering committee.
Currently represented on the panel are the Sheepmeat and Cattle Councils of Australia (Ian McCamley was nominated as CCA’s representative), Australian Lot Feeders Association (Grant Garey from Teys Australia), and Australian Meat Industry Council (Peter Greenham Jr), representing AMPC.
Others involved from MLA include meat science research leader Dr Alex Ball and industry systems general manager, Michelle Gorman. From the peak councils themselves, Jed Matz attends for CCA, Dougal Gordon for ALFA, and Steve Martyn for AMIC.
So far, the panel has had two meetings.
It has appointed a group of six consultants to conduct investigations into different aspects of the AusMeat language, and how well they might serve the industry’s future requirements. It was quickly realised that the sheer breadth of the AusMeat language and what it represents would make it impossible to find the requisite skills in just one consultant to adequately cover all the issues.
The consortium of technical experts appointed to the research project includes:
- Former processor and exporter, Paul Troja
- MSA expert Rod Polkinghorne
- Meat scientist Dr John Thompson
- Bob Biddle, former acting chief veterinary officer at DAFF, and
- Project managers, strategic planning specialists, Russell Patterson and Scott Williams.
Collectively, they have been chosen for their expertise in product description, the AusMeat language, meat science and technology, in-plant commercial applications, market access and knowledge of consumer and trade issues, both within Australia and overseas.
While each will focus on somewhat different aspects of the project based on their areas of expertise, the research group is also working collaboratively across the language’s sphere of influence.
They will examine not only the current tools used within the AusMeat language and how well they perform for the industry in the modern-day context, but also technological and other advances, both in Australia and overseas, that might indicate whether it is time for wholesale change, or refinement.
Each of the consultants will report back in their fields of expertise, for discussion and recommendations by the working group.
Rather than focussing on specific AusMeat elements such as butt shape, dentition or days-on-feed, the committee has tasked the consultants more broadly to review the AusMeat language.
That inevitably means that aspects like those mentioned above will come under scrutiny, but the project will look from one end of the language to the other. They will also examine what happens in other markets such as the US and Japan, and whether some of their criteria should be considered here.
AMPC chairman and AusMeat director Stephen Kelly says given the length of time that the AusMeat language has been in existence, it was timely to carry out a detailed review of how well it functions, right from the live animal stage through to boxed beef and retail descriptions.
“I think Australia can already lay claim to being one of the world leaders when it comes to product description and language, and AusMeat has driven that over the years,” Mr Kelly said.
“It allows processors to conduct trade globally, but like anything else, there may be opportunities, perhaps, to enhance the language and ask questions about what improvements or refinements can, or might be made.”
Mr Kelly anticipated that it could be another six months before any final conclusions were drawn, or recommendations made.
Ultimately, however, the committee can only make recommendations. Any changes to the language have to be referred back through the AusMeat Language and Standards Committee.
“But I’d like to think that we (industry stakeholders represented) are all approaching this with open minds, based on the perspectives of both producers and processors, and are prepared to explore all options. If there are improvements to be made, I don’t think we should shy away from them,” Mr Kelly said.
And the length of time it has taken already to get to this stage?
“As is often the case, the broader beef industry does not always move at a rapid pace. But despite some of the hiccups that have happened over the years with issues like butt shape and dentition, on the whole, the language itself has operated very effectively for many years,” Mr Kelly said.
“Yes, there are issues surrounding butt shape and dentition, perhaps, that should be looked at, to see if they are as relevant today as when they were first introduced to the language. But historically, they have proven to be worthy indicators for producers and processors to conduct business.”
“Speaking as a member of the processor side of the equation, we support the review, but equally, we don’t want disruptions to the current language unless it is truly endorsed by all of industry – and particularly our customers.”
“While the AusMeat language facilitates commercial trade between the producer and the processor, equally important is the use of the language descriptors to describe meat in trade between processors and customers.”
MLA said the investigation into the language, conducted as a research project, was a complex task, and the most important priority was that the review be done thoroughly and well, rather than being judged by how quickly it was delivered.
It anticipates that the industry can expect to see something in the way of outcomes in early 2015, if the current ‘trajectory’ of the project is followed.