The platform the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) program gives producers to fine-tune their operations in line with consumer demands represents a core advantage for the Australian red meat industry.
For central Queensland beef producer, Ian McCamley, it’s an advantage that will only be enhanced by the industry’s new Eating Quality Graded (EQG) cipher.
Introduced in August 2017, the EQG cipher relates exclusively to the eating quality of meat and disregards any reference to dentition.
For McCamley, its adoption reflects a concerted effort to shift the industry away from reliance on dentition as an indication of eating quality.
“Historically, the first thing cattle were graded on was dentition. There was this industry-wide belief that the less teeth the animal had, the better the eating quality would be,” said McCamley.
“When MSA was being developed, the science quickly showed that the number of permanent incisors had no real relevance to eating quality, and as a result this indicator wasn’t included in the MSA program,” he said.
It was McCamley’s first-hand experience having cattle MSA graded from 2007 on, that initially raised a query around the relevance of dentition to eating quality.
He and his wife Kate run 7,000 head of cattle across their PCAS and MSA accredited operation north of Rolleston, Queensland, a third of which is also EU accredited.
Purchasing weaner steers, they grow them to a live weight of about 600kg before selling them into the premium priced grassfed market.
“Back then, getting an animal into Boning Group One was the holy grail as a producer. The processor we were selling to at the time was providing us with feedback on every beast – instead of just those with milk and two teeth,” said McCamley.
“What this revealed, was that the very first steer we ever got into Boning Group One had six teeth. Of course, this meant that despite passing the MSA and grassfed tests with flying colours, we were savagely discounted based on dentition.
“This got me started on a crusade to try and move the industry away from applying premiums and discounts based on an indicator that had no real relevance to eating quality. I didn’t think dentition was relevant, the scientists didn’t think it was relevant, and it was costing producers and the industry a lot of money,” he said.
“Meat and Livestock Australia have now done some great work quantifying what the reliance on dentition is costing the industry, but I suspect the cost is even higher than they concluded.
“A lot of producers simply won’t bother sending their cattle in to be graded if they fear they might have too many teeth, and some processors won’t MSA grade cattle with more than two or four teeth.
“There is unnecessary animal and human stress caused by mouthing large cattle for no good reason, and producers often send cattle in before they reach their optimum finish and full eating quality potential, just in case they cut too many teeth. Everyone loses, including the consumer,” said McCamley.
His role as the producer representative on the Beef Language Steering Committee, in 2014 and 2015, helped with the development and introduction of the EQG cipher.
“One of the key recommendations to come out of the language review was the introduction of a cipher based on eating quality, being MSA, with no reference to dentition. It was a major turning point,” he said.
With the industry having relied on dentition as an indicator of eating quality for so long, Ian was surprised at the pace of uptake of the EQG cipher.
“We probably underestimated the adaptability of some of the processors and brand owners, and we expected there to be more resistance than there has been.”
Despite this, he acknowledges that the benefits of the EQG cipher are still yet to fully reach producers.
“Right now, we’re still selling our cattle on the old ciphers and being discounted based on dentition, despite the processor selling a growing proportion of the beef based on the EQG cipher,” said McCamley.
“As producers, we’re not quite there yet, but I feel the change is coming. I’m optimistic that soon we’ll start to see price grids coming back to the producer that include the EQG cipher and don’t reference dentition,” he said.