WHEN three-quarters of Steve and Lizzie Burnett's cattle eligible for the pasture-fed cattle assurance scheme were knocked back because of colour issues, they were shocked.
The central Queensland beef producers, who manage one arm of the family-owned Burnett Group in Clermont, took a punt on PCAS accreditation to get a premium price for their slaughter cattle, but lost more than $10,500 in one consignment.
"We sold our heifers in August to Teys Rockhampton. We took particular care with them in terms of general welfare and low-stress handling, trucked them quietly so there was no bruising - a perfect example of how they should be treated," Mr Burnett told Queensland Country Life.
Only 27 per cent of the 192 heifers graded as Meat Standards Australia (MSA) and then as PCAS.
The remainder were downgraded because of the meat and fat colour - and he is puzzled.
"I have spoken to other producers who have had similar numbers graded, but they have had nothing to compare this to. In our situation, we have had three years of no problems with meat or fat colour."
The Burnetts had been selling their young female cattle directly to Coles Livestock Cannon Hill, where between 80 and 96pc consistently made the MSA grade.
"I believe there are inconsistencies in the grading system and I can't understand how one abattoir can have an 80 to 96pc grading, while another will have 30pc or less for the same cattle from the same paddock."
Mr Burnett said he went through the expense of getting the PCAS accreditation because the dollar per kilogram premium beckoned - $4.25 in contrast to $3.65. Instead, his cattle averaged $3.30/kg, or 95c below the top money.
Not long afterwards, the Burnetts sent a second herd of cattle - raised in the same conditions as their first herd - to another processor, and more than 90pc made the MSA grade for meat and fat colour. "I do question the integrity of the grading system and just how independent it is. As far as I am aware, there are no producer-funded assessors overseeing the abattoirs on a weekly basis, resulting in processors being left to their own devices."
Mr Burnett said the issue was about the subjective grading
systems of meat and fat colour, where human error could play a role in how many cattle made the grade or did not. "Why is there such a big variation and who is supervising the processors to ensure that there is consistency and accuracy in the meat grading for the beef producer?"
He said the 'objective grading' measurements such as dentition and weight and fat cover were all areas producers could either accurately measure or estimate on-farm, giving them the ability to better market cattle and maximise profits. "It is impossible to do the same with meat and fat colour measurements."
Mr Burnett said he wanted to make producers aware of the potential loss in selling cattle through the PCAS market, which advertised a large premium but did not deliver, like a carrot in front of a horse.
Teys Australia's corporate services general manager Tom Maguire was aware of Mr Burnett's case and said the Rockhampton plant had reviewed the situation and the systems and operations were working. "We ask AusMeat or MSA, when these situations arise, to review the situation and often our grading is found to be more lenient for the producer than their grading is."
Mr Maguire said he could understand how frustrating it was for someone who saw their cattle going in two different directions and have two different results, but there were many potential factors.
"What is not understood is the economic impact of dark cutting. We pack PCAS cattle to an order and if cattle cut dark, we can't fill that order.
"And what people don't understand is that the loss to us is greater than to the producer," Mr Maguire said. "It is an industry issue - not a producer versus processor issue."
The high premiums promised by PCAS have also been costing
fellow central Queensland beef producer Ian McCamley between $200 and $350 per head, but he is not about to throw in the towel.
He said the issue was MSA, which underpinned the success of beef brands being sold with the PCAS certification mark.
Everything possible had to be done through the whole chain - on farm, during transport and on processing plants - to ensure the best possible MSA compliance.
However with the high premiums offered by PCAS, meat colour had also become an issue for his Rolleston-based operation.
"When we started having colour issues, it was suggested that the problem must be on our end, which was somewhat confronting as the people in our business are extremely aware of on-farm MSA requirements to turn off cattle that will grade well and we have been doing that for many years."
Mr McCamley went back through the entire process. MSA experts came and followed through from mustering, to how the cattle were worked in the yards, how they were loaded, how they travelled and were unloaded at the processor.
"Our end was squeaky clean, and we were still having meat colour issues, so the processor involved agreed to check on-plant issues that can affect meat colour and do more research."
The issue of meat colour without a pH measurement continues to be the issue of debate between producers and processors. Assessors use physical colour charts numbering from one to seven to compare the colour of the meat.
"Meat colour only has to be a fraction darker than the meat
colour 3 chip and it must be graded as an MC4, which results in an MSA fail."
Mr McCamley said it was not only on-farm and transport stress that could affect meat colour, but handling in the processors' yards before they were killed, the amount of time of electrical stimulation, chiller temperature fluctuation, hot water sprays to control bacteria and spray chilling.
"Of course a key is to get the bloom time right, from when they rib the carcase until they grade it as often in the rush for throughput, cattle are graded too early and the meat colour is higher than it would be if they waited longer."
Mr McCamley said he worked with key meat scientists to investigate the issues and there had been some improvements.
"Some loads to one plant graded almost 100 per cent MC3 or less and received the PCAS premium, however other loads to another plant still have a large percentage grading MC4 and above."
More research and development needed to be fast-tracked to develop technology to objectively measure meat colour and other beef-grading measures rather than relying on a person comparing colour chips, he added.
A level of transparency was needed to improve the trust between producers and processors, namely through use of quality on-plant CCTV footage, from unloading through to penning, measuring carcase specifications to final MSA grading.
"Price has not been determined until this point, so we need full transparency with both live footage and recorded footage available to the owner - the producer."
Mr Maguire said the issue is more about fixing the problem of dark meat, and there was no silver bullet. "We can say, let's improve transparency and grading, but it's not going to put money in people's pockets."
Mr Maguire said having independent graders was cost-prohibitive and the industry made the decision years ago to become self-regulatory.
"We have to be very careful that we don't cost ourselves out of the market. Producers know that it already costs twice as much to process cattle in Australia than it does in the US or Brazil."