IN October last year this column broke the news that Woolworths appeared to be moving toward removal of MSA-Graded logos from its retail beef packs.
Subsequent media reporting confirmed that Woolworths was working toward a structural move away from in-store preparation to a full case-ready production system and that the decision to phase out MSA logos would better align them with the industry trend for MSA and its associated science to act in production background underpinning commercial brands rather than in retail foreground as an independent mark of quality.
With similar lack of fanfare to the logo abandonment, Woolworths now appears to have made the transition to its case-ready model.
A store visit last week confirmed a complete absence of Overwrap (OWP) and instead a mix of product in Modified Atmosphere (MAP) and Vacuum Skin Pack (VSP). The store manager confirmed the transition to case-ready had been made.
While the move is no doubt predicated on the advantages of centralised processing, it must also have been made in full knowledge of the science linking MAP to eating quality considerations as the most recent, extensively detailed study on the topic was published by MLA on June 30, 2017.
The 85-page report titled Impacts on consumer acceptance of beef from interactions between pH, meat colour and packaging was prepared by Dr R Polkinghorne, Ms J Philpott, Dr R Watson and Dr G Tarr.
The research found that the relationship of eating quality to packaging type was highly significant with MAP MQ4 (Meat Quality 4 variables - tenderness, juiciness, flavour and overall liking) scores substantially below those for OWP and VSP.
Further, the study found that the consistency of the MAP effect across cuts and ageing days indicates that it is a straight packaging effect.
A number of analysis approaches were tested to confirm and cross check the magnitude of the detrimental MAP effect on MQ4.
The outcome was considered by the MSA Pathways Committee which recommended a 12 MQ4 point penalty be applied to all cuts packed in 80:20 (oxygen:carbon dioxide) mix.
The MSA Taskforce endorsed the recommendation but elected to delay implementation to allow time for further research that might address the problem.
Specifically the report suggested there may be benefit in researching two issues; how quickly eating quality deteriorates after packing and possible adoption of a different gas mix (nitrogen/oxygen/carbon dioxide).
It is not known whether any such effort is under way nor of any timeline for MSA adoption of the recommended 12 point penalty for cuts packed in 80:20 MAP.
Renewed run of cattle brings strong exports
AFTER July's surprisingly good run of cattle and a four-year high beef export result for the month, the first three weeks of August saw numbers drift lower until a combination of some extra money on the table and no sign of a seasonal break brought on a renewed run late in the month.
The result was 106,332 tonnes of beef exported for August according to Department of Agriculture figures released last week, the second highest monthly tonnage in the past 12 months.
Despite triggering safeguard under ChAFTA (China Australia Free Trade Agreement) and a 6 per cent tariff increase in mid-August, China backed up its record 28,000t July volume with a second-best 26,000t in August to be the dominant player in Australia's export beef trade.
It is now two months in a row that China has outpaced our largest market Japan which took 27,000t and 24,000t respectively in July and August.
On a cumulative basis to end of August for this calendar year, Japan is still our largest volume customer with 193,000t but China is not far behind at 172,000.
The United States, which has dropped back to around 230,000-240,000t annually since its massive 415,000t volume of 2015, comes in next at 167,000t and then Korea at 108,000t.
While China's demand surge has been dramatic, breaking volume records six months out of eight this year in its Australian trade, there has been no real surprise on the supply side that drought-induced liquidation of cows has been the driving force.
The extra 700,000 cattle in the 2018 kill compared to 2017 were all females.
But if there is an element of surprise to this statistic, it is that the percentage of females in the 2018 kill didn't climb into the 50s until April and averaged just 50.7pc for the year.
Compare that to this year where the percentage has been in the 50s since January and for the seven months of ABS statistics to July has averaged 56.6pc.
It is the acceleration of liquidation from 50 to 56pc that is surprising and concerning.
Already the number of females killed this year to date is 470,000 more than corresponding period last year.
If that rate continues it will mean around 800,000 more females killed in 2019 than the already elevated 3.998 million in 2018.
Allowing for variation in male cattle numbers, the result for 2019 could well be a total kill of around 8.4m, up significantly on last year's 7.87m.
Storms, or better still an early season break, in the final quarter will be the determining factor.
Another dimension to the kill this year is that while the proportion of females has remained very stable, so too has average carcase weight.
In a year such as this it would be reasonable to expect cow weights to drop as the season deteriorates bringing down average carcase weight as processors dip further and further into lighter conditioned stock.
In the four months this year that females remained at 58pc of the kill, average carcase weight stuck firmly to 280kg.
It was only in July when female percentage dropped marginally to 57.3 that carcase weight crept up slightly to 281.8kg.
This means that females are somehow holding up in weight despite the adverse conditions.
Perhaps a lot more cows than we might have thought are being topped up in feedlots or supplementary fed in the paddock.