FAST-PACED technology breakthroughs in meat science are paving the way for value-based marketing and higher payments for better quality beef.
However, the experts launching the likes of dual emission x-ray analysis, three dimensional cameras for measuring marbling and pH and smartphone meat colour sensors say the success of modern technology will hinge on the willingness of all sectors of the red meat industry to "think differently".
“It is not the widgets that will move the industry forward on yield and eating quality but cultural change that will enable the technology to be used,” said general manager of red meat innovation with Meat and Livestock Australia, Dr Alex Ball.
As processors signal the desire to introduce payment systems that reward and penalise based on carcase attributes, the world of red meat science has been in overdrive coming up with almost unbelievable methods and tools that allow for intrinsic measurements on animals.
Speaking at a forum which preceded MLA’s 2015 annual general meeting in Brisbane last week, Dr Ball provided a rundown on the innovations now calculating the two key dimensions likely to take processor grids into the 21st Century - meat eating quality and lean meat yield.
Eating quality was now being measured via the Meat Standards Australia Index, which provided a single point measurement free of processing effects, and the collection of that data was providing some valuable insights particularly in the production of beef, he said.
On the yield side, Australian scientists were now on the verge of being able to deliver tools to the industry that not only describe lean meat yield of whole carcases but bone, fat and muscle within regions of the carcase.
The MSA index, launched last year, can benchmark all - any producer from any region, with any breed in any season.
“This is the first time we’ve had the ability to do that and what it has enabled is the debunking of a few pertinent myths,” Dr Ball said.
“For example, the distribution of MSA indexes in grain is the same as in grassfed - there are animals in the 65s that are both grain and grassfed and there are also animals below the 50s from both grain and grass.
“Another is that historically days on feed has been used as a quality indicator but we can now say distribution of the MSA index at 70 days on feed is similar to that at 150 days.
“What that shows is that if you are grain feeding for 200 days and the animal performs less than 50 you have wasted in the order of 13 tonnes of feed.”
While lean meat yield and eating quality are negatively correlated in sheep and beef in that a focus on one will decrease the other, the information coming from modern technology is painting an encouraging picture.
“We can use an algorithm for predicting saleable meat yield and put it against the MSA index and see that at any given yield there is a range of 15 MSA points,” Dr Ball said.
“What that means is that we can significantly lift eating quality while maintaining yield and the reverse is also true.”
What that shows is that if you are grain feeding for 200 days and the animal performs less than 50 you have wasted in the order of 13 tonnes of feed.
He said there was as much as a $900 differential between the top and bottom animals in terms of eating quality and yield.
“So if you take the 500,000 grassfed cattle that were processed in Australia in the past three to four months, that equates to a $28 million cost to the industry of not getting this right,” he said.
Dr Ball said research pointed to the next generation of beef eaters, the "want it now" generation Zs, demanding an eating quality at least eight points better than the generation before them.
“Research has also shown that perceptions of eating quality are built-in for a period of 20 years so if the beef industry fails this generation on eating quality, it will be dealing with the ramifications of that for a long term,” he said.
“The bottom line - we have to get it right on eating quality.”
Technology is clearly moving at an incredible rate, with Dr Ball demonstrating the latest gadget - a nix colour sensor, which he said the meat industry didn’t even know existed three months ago.
“It’s a tool we can now put into any abattoir or retail environment, at a cost of just $500, and have the ability to describe variations in meat colour,” he said.
The whole key, however, is whether the industry is ready for the cultural changes that are coming with the new technologies, big data and value based marketing, Dr Ball said.