Could a new premium program and grading system boost consumer satisfaction?
A student project at the University of Alberta suggests that introducing an additional quality grading system could benefit the Canadian beef industry.
Five animal science students in the final year of their undergraduate degree have proposed the development of a voluntary muscle-based grading system, modeled after a similar program that has had positive results in Australia.
Each student in the U of A’s animal science program is required to complete a Capstone project to graduate, in which they work in a group to create a solution to an industry issue. This group consisted of Claye Harsany, James Ritchie, Dana Stoyberg, Vladmir Tadic and Heidi Trenson. While many students are assigned a project, these students created their own project from a topic they’re passionate about.
“We’re all looking to get into the cattle industry in one way or another, and this really lets us tackle something that we think is important,” said Ritchie.
Australia’s grading experience
U of A animal science professor Heather Bruce mentored the students on their project. She directed them to Australian research on quality grading systems, which became the basis of their project. The students also consulted with Cindy Delaloye, general manager of the Canadian Beef Grading Agency, and Reynold Bergen, science director of the Beef Cattle Research Council.
In response to decreasing beef consumption in the 1990s, Meat and Livestock Australia established Meat Standards Australia (MSA), a voluntary program meant to decrease quality variation.
Meat Standards Australia uses a five-star grading system, which gives three stars to beef deemed “Good Everyday,” four stars to “Better than Everyday” and five stars to “Premium.” Consumer taste tests rating juiciness, tenderness and overall satisfaction laid the foundation for standards applied to beef from a variety of production systems, breeds, aging periods and cooking methods.
Another part of this system is the MSA Index, a number applied to the entire carcass that predicts its eating quality. This is an average of quality scores of 39 individual cuts of beef. Producers can access this information from graders. Factors that affect the MSA Index include marbling, ossification, rib fat and hot carcass weight. With the use of Bos indicus cattle in Australia, the Meat Standards Australia system measures tropical breed content by hump height. This system also looks at pH, hormonal growth promotant status, hanging method, aging and cooking method of the individual cut.
As part of the program’s requirements, only steers and heifers can be consigned, and cattle must reside on the property of sale for at least 30 days. Cattle that have been seriously injured or ill and those with signs of severe stress or poor temperament cannot be sold into this program. Slaughter time requirements are based on transportation mode, which is tailored to the Australian beef industry. If cattle are transported by rail or sea, they must be slaughtered 24 hours after dispatch. Those sold through an MSA-verified auction market must be slaughtered 36 hours after leaving the operation. Cattle direct consigned to a packer must be slaughtered no more than 48 hours later.
It’s also recommended that producers keep a group of cattle for sale together for a minimum of 14 days before slaughter and use low-stress handling practices. Animals must have access to water and feed before transport, and the national code of practice for transporting livestock should be followed.
At processing, the carcass pH level cannot go above 5.7, as higher levels can result in dark cutters. Fat cover must be at least three millimetres to avoid temperature variation in chilling. Box labels note whether the beef is grain-fed or grass-fed. Grain-fed cattle fall into three categories based on age and days on feed, while grass-fed cattle must be traceable through on-farm systems to ensure they never enter intensified feeding programs.
MSA-accredited processing plants use a carcass label that highlights hot carcass weight, sex, dentition, P8 fat depth and bruising. The carcass label also includes the traditional grading system’s grade. The retailer or box label includes the MSA grade, taking into account the specific cut and how aging time and cooking method will affect eating quality. For example, five days of aging a specific cut after purchase may result in an MSA 3 quality grade for a particular product, but if aged for 14 days the same cut could increase to a quality level of MSA 4. Meat Standards Australia guarantees its beef quality, and refunds are available if a customer isn’t satisfied with a product.
In Meat Standards Australia’s 20 years of operation, 43,000 producers provided 26.5 million head for grading. From 2017 to 2018, 3,780 new producers registered with the program. MSA-graded cattle make up a little less than 45 per cent of Australia’s adult cattle slaughter. The students said that many Australian producers are unable to meet the program’s requirements due to the remoteness of their operations, which affects management practices and transport times. As those challenges don’t exist to the same extent in Canada, the students believe participation in a similar program here would be greater.
As part of their economic research, the group found that after the implementation of the Meat Standards Australia program in 1998, live cattle exports increased. As of 2018, Australian consumers were willing to pay an extra $0.32 per kilogram for MSA-branded beef. With increased transparency and an assurance of sustainable production practices, the students are confident that this program positively influenced public perception of the Australian beef industry.
Of the increased retail value from this program, producers received around 48 per cent, while wholesalers received about 35 per cent and retailers kept around 17 per cent. In 2017-18, an estimated AUD$152 million went back to Australian producers participating in the Meat Standards Australia program.
“With the highest carcass weight, you’re getting 50 extra cents per kilogram for an MSA steer rather than a basic steer, so we feel as if that is fairly substantial for a producer to become involved with the system,” said Tadic.
A proposed Canadian program
“We want our consumers to know that Canada does in fact produce such a high-quality product,” said Harsany, adding that this system would ensure consumers receive consistent quality.
There are potential economic benefits for the whole supply chain, as illustrated by the premium sharing in the Meat Standards Australia program. The students believe this would result in greater co-operation and transparency between each level of the Canadian beef industry. By earning more for the same product without changing many practices, they also believe producers would be interested in becoming part of this proposed system.
It may also be an opportunity to extend Canadian beef’s reach on the global market. “If we can create the system where we’re rating on a homogenous five-star label for the whole world to see, I think it would be huge for the beef industry,” said Harsany.
The group’s proposed solution relies on transparency between each level of the supply chain, with financial incentives in place. This would be set up similarly to programs such as the Canadian Beef Sustainability Acceleration Pilot, which rewards cow-calf producers, feedlots and processors whose management practices are verified by a third party.
“Most of these protocols and standards are already being followed by Canadian producers,” said Ritchie. “This will be another way for producers to be rewarded for the information they share.”
Producers would need to provide information on their production practices, which would help create the algorithm needed to grade each individual cut. A group such as the Canadian Beef Grading Agency would need to collect this data. Similar to the Meat Standards Australia program, producers would be able to access carcass information.
When retailers cut the primals and sub-primals, they would use the data from the packing plants to label each cut. In addition to assigning new muscle-based grades, it may be necessary to continue using the traditional grading method in this program.
“We realize that these changes aren’t going to happen overnight,” said Ritchie. “We also need to be aware that if we suggest a massive, multi-million-dollar venture it’s going to scare a lot of people away, so I think we need to start small.”
A number of the proposed critical control points focus on reducing stress before slaughter, which can affect meat quality. They recommend cattle be kept on one premises for a minimum of 30 days before slaughter, and animals should be kept in their sale group for a minimum of 14 days before slaughter to avoid mixing that may result in stress or aggressive behaviour. Other requirements include cattle being slaughtered within 48 hours of being shipped to a packing plant, and not being in transport for more than 36 hours without feed and water.
Many of their proposed requirements are already regulated in Canada. “We still want all of those regulations to be followed because they’re in place for a good reason and not only increase meat quality but it also increases the long-term viability of the beef industry in Canada,” said Ritchie.
“We also think pain mitigation should be used progressively, and this basically means that consumers can be satisfied that producers are doing everything in their power to really ensure animal welfare is upheld,” he said.
Electric prods should be used sparingly to limit stress on animals, and higher-energy feeds should be given during extreme cold. Proof that cattle come from a registered premises will accompany them upon transport. Like the Meat Standards Australia system, the carcass should have a maximum pH threshold of 5.7 and a minimum fat cover of three millimetres.
The label for this project would include the existing Canadian quality grade, in addition to the five-star rating, making it easier for consumers to differentiate between grades. This would be connected to a mobile application, allowing consumers to scan a barcode to receive cooking tips as well as recommendations of what pairs well with the product. On the back of the package, the label would have cooking instructions for consumers who don’t use the app. Afterward, consumers could rate the product through the app, and this information would be shared through the supply chain.
“We can also show that some of the other cuts of meat are also very high quality,” said Ritchie. “With a system like this we might be able to shift the demand from being specifically for Prime, which is associated with being the best, with some of the other cuts of meat that are scoring as five out of five.”
Retailer demand needed to drive change
When this proposal was presented to industry representatives at the Canadian Beef Grading Agency in March, the general response was that there is a place for such a program, but there would be challenges in implementation. One challenge is getting a retailer on board, which would signal demand to the other levels of the supply chain.
There are also some retailers that no longer have in-store butchers to apply these labels and talk to consumers about how to cook the products. The students suggested that to deal with the issue of retailers not labelling the products, it would be mandatory for retailers to use the specific label to be part of the system. To deal with people throwing out the package before rating the product on the app, scanning the label initially for cooking information would allow the consumer to rate it afterwards without scanning the barcode again.
Hypothetically, if this project continued beyond the semester, the next logical step would be to consult with retailers, given their importance in driving demand. If time and resources allowed, the students are interested in pursuing this project further, given the positive response they received during their presentations to industry representatives.
“We did choose this topic because it does affect us in one way or another, so I think if there are, say, positive areas in the industry that people will really latch onto this idea, we’d love to be involved,” said Harsany. c
Piper Whelan is a field editor for Canadian Cattlemen based out of Calgary, Alta.