Landlines: Too much emphasis is put on leanness and weight of meat

We might think eating quality of meat should top the checklist when livestock farmers select, breed and feed animals - not so.

Eating quality was described recently as the forgotten end of the pork supply chain. And a recent meeting of Duns Agricultural Discussion Society was told much the same about beef.

Laura Mitchell, Mount Pleasant, near Berwick, completed a university dissertation on beef eating quality then spent four months in Australia and New Zealand. That included a close look at how beef is graded by Meat Standards Australia compared with grading in the UK.

In the UK, she said, the whole carcase is graded on weight, conformation and fatness. The Australian system grades individual parts, or cuts. One of the main movers behind the Australian system told Ms Mitchell: “If we want money from the industry it has to come from the consumer.”

And unless the consumer knows they can get consistent eating quality they won’t buy beef so often. Beef eating in Australia has been in decline for about 30 years and the meat standards scheme is an attempt to stop, or reverse that.

The consistent quality aimed for has been arrived at by more than 600,000 tests with 86,000 consumers. Meat graders have monthly tests to ensure that they are applying their own checks consistently. More than 34,000 beef farmers now use the system with information feedback from slaughterhouses such as Naracoorte, handling more than 700 cattle a day.

That information benchmarks their performance and can, and should, be used to make adjustments to their production system, breed of cattle, feeding and other management factors. There is a premium for meeting the scheme’s standards, again as there should be. The need now, said Ms Mitchell, is a similar scheme in Scotland; Quality Meat Scotland is making moves towards that.

There was one inevitable comment from a farmer at the meeting: “I think it’s a gimmick.” But another, a large-scale beef producer noted for the quality of his cattle, said: “There is massive room for improvement in assessing the eating quality of Scotch beef.”

The same is true of pork according to Caroline Mitchell, director of meat science with the large-scale livestock breeding and production company JSR. Pig farmers and processors, she said, are failing the consumer by putting too much emphasis on leanness and weight of meat from the carcase.

People eating meat are interested in its taste, flavour and juiciness she said recently – exactly the traits ignored by genetic selection and slaughterhouse management. She said: “We know that fat improves flavour yet we have spent 25 years selecting against it.”