MLA announced last week some important changes to the Meat Standards Australia eating-quality grading scheme.
Only the briefest of detail was provided in the MLA announcement with the apparent intention that all MSA stakeholders including producers, processors, independent boning rooms and retailers will be contacted directly by MSA in the next two months before implementation in June 2019.
For now, MSA program manager Sarah Strachan said that MSA-registered cattle producers don't need to do anything, just be aware that changes are coming.
However she did mention that the changes stemmed from extensive research over a period of five years and it was the recommendation of the MSA R&D Pathways Committee who reviewed the research as to how the results could be incorporated into the beef model.
Principal change will be the way hump height is used as a predictor of eating quality. Last week's announcement simply says that while hump height has always been measured as part of MSA, it will now be used as a direct predictor of eating quality rather than an estimate of tropical breed.
This suggests the research has found that hump height, irrespective of Indicus content, has a direct relationship with eating quality or to put it another way, straight British or European breeds with accentuated hump height are also likely to be associated with lower levels of eating quality.
In the absence of any further elaboration, the announcement leads the reader to surmise that hump height might be about to be applied equally across breed types but it seems it will not be that simple.
In a recent briefing provided to the AgForce cattle board, Ms Strachan was reported to have said that a hump-height alone approach could result in zero-Indicus-content cattle being discounted unnecessarily.
Instead it seems there will be a tolerance range relative to carcase weight for zero-Indicus cattle and hump-height adjustment for eating quality scores will only come into play if the height exceeds the tolerance. For Indicus-content cattle, the hump height will feed directly into the model on an individual animal basis instead of being applied indirectly through an estimate of Indicus content.
All this will result in a revised MSA Vendor Declaration Form. It will simplify how producers record tropical breed content and it will also provide an option for owners who use agistment or custom feeding to receive direct carcase feedback through the myMSA feedback portal.
MSA-registered producers will not need to transition straight away to the new MSA Declaration Form when it becomes available. Current versions will continue to be accepted until they run out.
Another change will be new features in the myMSA portal. Producers will have access to an Opportunity Index for cattle that did not meet minimum MSA grading requirements. This will give producers an indication of the potential value of those carcases if the reasons for non-compliance are addressed.
A refreshed and more user-friendly myMSA portal will be a further improvement. For the foodservice sector, an important change included in the announcement will be an increase in the number of 'cut-by-cook' combinations from 169 to 275. This will incorporate new secondary cut options and provide for increasingly popular cooking methods such as sous vide and combi-oven roasting.
Hong Kong FTA signed
AFTER the conclusion of negotiations last November, Australia and Hong Kong signed their free trade agreement (A-HKFTA) and associated Investment Agreement on March 26. Australia will now follow its domestic processes to ratify the agreement. This will include tabling the text of the agreements in Parliament and an inquiry by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT).
It therefore seems unlikely that it will be ratified within the life of the current government. That in turn places a big question mark over the whole deal as an incoming Labor government could be expected to seek amendments to the ISDS (investor-state dispute settlement) provisions or side letters nullifying their effect. Hong Kong reportedly is not inclined to consider either.
From an agriculture perspective, this is pretty much sliding by in Australia without much comment or concern. The reason is that Hong Kong is already a tariff-free market for Australia's red meat and livestock products, the same access conditions as applied to our competitors. The best the deal does for agriculture is to lock in those zero tariffs.
Also, despite Hong Kong importing massive quantities of frozen beef and offal, Australia's share of that market has been minuscule at around 0.5pc. But there is an upside. In 2017 Australia exported 3317 tonnes of chilled beef to Hong Kong valued at A$64.5 million. That placed Australia as Hong Kong's largest supplier of chilled beef imports with a 47pc market share.
It also equated to A$19.37/kg which was almost 80pc higher than the average price received across all of Australia's chilled beef export markets (A$10.87/kg). Hopefully that sort of success will continue with or without the FTA.
Weather steadies cattle flow
MEATWORKS contacts this week reported weather is having a significant impact on flow of cattle. Rain in the far west of the state and right up into the Barkly has knocked out consignments for the time being, especially cows. Saturday shifts, which had been invoked to help handle the big run of cattle driven by lack of feed and water, have stopped and may remain that way given the likelihood of more rain still to come.
Fat cows in saleyards spiked up by 30-40c/kg last week while plainer descriptions extracted as much as 50c extra from store buyers. Early markets this week suggest a bit of a pause in any further strengthening in slaughter descriptions while the full extent of the weather plays out but store buyers are showing no reticence in adding another 10-12c to last week's rises. Grid prices responded on Monday with a 20c rise taking 4-tooth ox in south and central Queensland to 490-495 and heavy cow to 400-415.