Steaking a claim: beef grading and Meat Standards Australia

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Steaking a claim: beef grading in Australia

Agribusiness Bulletin

How do you like your beef? We take a historical look at the prominent meat grading system, some tips for choosing the right cut, and consider… has it all been worth it?

The Agribusiness Bulletin

The Agribusiness Bulletin focuses on national and local industry, as well as cross-industry insights and trends. This includes some of the drivers we expect to shape the future of the industry and potential challenges that may arise.

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How do you like your beef? Quite an open question depending on who you ask. There is a myriad of responses and they will be very individualistic to each consumer depending on the type of occasion such as a premium steak to celebrate, or a time poor professional in need of a quick feed.

We take a historical look at the why and how the prominent meat grading system was implemented in Australia, some tips for choosing the right cut, and ask... has it all been worth it?

Check out http://www.beefandlamb.com.au/Home for some inspiration.

A historical perspective: Declining red meat consumption and the industry response

In the 1990’s, declining per capita beef consumption sparked an industry investigation into the factors contributing to this trend. Early research identified that the public perception of red meat was being impacted by disease outbreaks (such as mad cow in the UK), understanding of meat cuts and preparation had declined, and consumers were becoming increasingly time poor and convenience hungry.1

Figure 1: Beef consumption per capita 1980-2009

Source: Meat Standards Australia

The industry response was the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) grading system and associated consumer confidence program which were designed to take the guesswork out of buying, cooking and enjoying Australian beef.

Research undertaken by the industry body, Meat and Livestock Association (MLA), showed that beef eating quality was a key determinant of consumer satisfaction; even more than price.2 The consumer experience has since been at the forefront of industry thinking. The MSA beef eating predictability and grading system was underpinned by extensive consumer research examining the taste preferences of 86,000 diners across consumer panels in eight countries tasting over 600,000 serves of beef. Factors contributing to eating predictability include animal handling practices prior to farm gate, genetics, feed stuffs (grass or grain), meat colour, fat colour, marbling, and the suitability of the cut to cooking style.

There are three trademarked standards:

MSA 3 star: Graded beef meeting a minimum standard

MSA 4 star: Premium quality

MSA 5 star: Supreme quality

Source: Meat Standards Australia

This MSA logo is a visual endorsement of quality for graded cuts of beef indicating that the product has meet quality standards developed by comprehensive consumer research for tenderness, juiciness, and flavour, and may be found at your local retailer, butcher, or restaurant. 

Choosing and cooking the right cut to maximise your experience

The cooking method of the cut of meat is the single most important factor in eating quality.3

For example, high-use muscles such as shin have lots of connective tissue and collagen making them ideal for casseroles or slow cook dishes. Low heat and moisture breaks down the connective tissue and creates the thickened gravy and tender meat associated with this type of dish.

By contrast, tenderloin which sits in close to the spine does little work and contains very little connective tissue. The tenderloin would not be suitable for casseroles, but best suited to pan frying or grilling.

Consumer understanding of the factors affecting their meat choice and cooking style is in line with current industry thinking as shown in the following extract from an MSA brochure highlighting the relationship between the types of cuts and how they should be cooked: 

Technical jargon: The above data is taken from a standard MSA carcase with the following specifications: HSCW 240kg; male; 75mm hump; AT hang; ossification 150; MSA marbling 270; meat colour 1C; rib fat 7mm; pH 5.55; loin temp 7.0˚C; ageing 5 days and  non HGP-treated.

Source: Meat Standards Australia4

Industry implications of MSA

Increasing adoption of the MSA guidelines by graziers and processors indicates market feedback from consumers through the retailers is positive. The Annual Outcomes Report 2013 – 2014 released by Meat Standards Australia reports a positive price differential for registered producers of the system and is illustrated in the right-hand graph below: 

Source: Meat Standards Australia

A positive price differentiation is observed for those graziers registered for the MSA and compliant with standards based on prices received over the hooks. MSE compliant producers would expect to see a direct improvement to their bottom line.

The success of MSA in Australia appears to be filtering into export markets. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has verified the MSA process and Australian product can now be sold under a USDA process verified banner resulting in the ability of the MSA logo displayed alongside the USDA shield.5 When the world’s biggest beef producer gets on board, you know you have done something right.6

Whilst the long term trend of declining per capita consumption of beef continues, year on year increases in the uptake of the voluntary grading system by producers, processors, and retailers suggest that the MSA system is helping underpin consumer confidence domestically and internationally.

References

1.Evolution of the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) beef grading system, R. Polkinghorne A,F , J. M. Thompson B , R. Watson C , A. Gee D and M. Porter E, p1: http://palatability.une.edu.au/drupal/sites/default/files/PolkinghorneThompsonetal2008.pdf

2.The Aggregate Economic Benefits to 2007/08 from the Adoption of Meat Standards Australia, Garry Griffith, Heidi Rodgers, John Thompson and Cameron Dart*, p96:
http://www.agrifood.info/review/2009/Griffith_Rodgers_Thompson_Dart.pdf

3.Meat Standards Australia beef information kit: Tips and tools, p33: ISBN: 1 74036 505 4

4.Ibid                                             

5.Discussion on the effects of MSA becoming USDA process verified on the Australian red meat industry, Nick van den Berg, University of Adelaide, p3:
http://www.icmj.com.au/2014%20USA%20Trip%20/Reports/Effects%20of%20USDA%20Process%20Verified.pdf

6.Reference for USDA being largest producer of beef:  http://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/animal-products/cattle-beef.aspx

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