Alta. economist urges Australian-style beef grading

Canadian beef producers and retailers could add value to their product by moving to a “more consistent” beef-grading system, a University of Alberta economist suggests.

Canada’s current beef-grading system, in which carcasses are visually inspected and meat labelled accordingly, “cannot provide the same quality assurance as the more extensive (Meat Standards Australia, or MSA) system,” researcher Sven Anders said in a recent release.

The voluntary MSA system, through which about 40 per cent of Australian beef cattle were marketed in 2010, is voluntary and has added costs for participating producers and processors.

However, Anders said his research suggests Australian producer groups and others along the value chain who use MSA have an advantage over those who don’t.

Studies have found Australian consumers were prepared to pay an extra 32 cents per kilogram for MSA-inspected beef, he said.

About half of that extra was passed to producers, said Anders, an assistant professor at the U of A in Edmonton, specializing in food marketing and retailing and value-chain analysis.

Canada’s system, on the other hand, can create what Anders called “inconsistencies” between the labelling and the quality of Canadian beef.

Beef quality in Canada overall “is very good,” he said, “but sometimes you go to the store and you get a steak that melts on your tongue. The next week you go to the same store and you buy the same cut and it’s just not there. It’s a hit and miss.”

The Canadian system, he said, “is almost like looking at a car from the outside to determine how fast it drives. You don’t see the engine, you don’t know anything else. But you’re making a statement: this car looks fast, it must be fast. This carcass looks great, so it must taste great.”

Star system

By comparison the MSA system uses 27 parameters to measure quality at each stage of production from farming to processing, Anders said. Based on these different criteria and measurements, the meat is graded on a scale of one to five stars and labelled accordingly.

The MSA system also takes measurements not only of a specific animal or carcass, but of a specific cut of beef, he said.

“There are certain guarantees about what you can expect from this piece of meat. The whole set of measurements that the system provides is targeted to give you that guarantee,” Anders said.

The MSA, he said, based its grading system on a survey of 40,000 Australians who sampled 600,000 pieces of beef and rated them.

Even if a consumer is purchasing an MSA two-star piece of meat, there are still certain quality guarantees that go along with it, he said.

“With your two-star steak you will still be satisfied because you paid a price that corresponds with the quality,” he said. “Ideally, what you as a consumer think, what you want, and what you’re getting with this product is perfectly aligned.”

MSA, he said, has proven itself as a consumer marketing tool and as a mechanism for “fostering the successful development of producer alliances and integrated value chains.”

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