In 1961, Goulburn Council’s outstanding abattoir manager, Bert Towns, ran a meat marketing conference at Goulburn’s Leidertafel Hall. I was a young Poll Hereford breeder in the audience. The key address was by Jack Shute, chairman of the Australian Meat Board from 1945.
My diary records his explanation of the weakening access to UK markets as wartime subsidies had seen increased production as well as their application to join the European Economic Community. Australia was shipping four times as much to the US. Like Anthony Trollope in his 1878 analysis of Australia’s beef industry, Shute was concerned at the relatively low standard of Australian beef.
Trollope had rated our northern beef (and wine) very badly. Shute stated that Australia’s best beef was third class by US standards. He mentioned their grading system. The US troops had complained about beef quality variation and their government made the US Departmet of Agriculture’s 1927 designed grading system compulsory. He was later to recommend Australian adoption of the system – as Canada, Japan and South Korea were to do (and we didn’t).
He stressed that Australia should not send its very best beef to the US, as the powerful US cattle lobby could stop imports (such protection now lies in the USFTA). He explained that our lean beef would mix with surplus fat from their feedlot cattle in hamburgers. The US had moved into feedlotting in a big way in the 1950s, as value adding to their subsidised grain market.
He also warned of the increasing competition from chicken. Australians were eating less than three kilograms of chicken a year. Shute was right. Now, 56 years on, we are eating 50kg of chicken a year, a 1666 per cent increase. Beef consumption, meanwhile, has fallen 50pc to 25kg/year. Why? In 1970 chicken and beef had a similar price. Now chicken is one third the price of beef, mainly due to conversion efficiency induced by scientific crossbreeding.
In 1970 it took 65 days to grow a 2kg chicken, now it takes 35 days. Chicken varies between 1.3kg and 2kg of feed for 1kg gain. Beef is from 6kg to 10kg. Chicken is consistent, beef comes from more than 200,000 individuals producing on mostly secondary soil.
Shute could see in 1961 the dangers in the loss of the family butcher to supermarkets, but not the duopoly that was to develop. He spoke of the importance of the government (local and state) abattoirs were being built to meet high US hygiene standards (NSW alone, had 30 abattoirs and 463 slaughterhouses in 1961).
He spoke of the need for promotion. A lot of levy dollars have been spent on attempting to improve beef’s position, but the market share continues to slip away. Self-regulation, Breedplan, MSA, billions of dollars in AMLC and MLA promotion have had the same effect on saving the ship as the orchestra did on the Titanic. So, in five columns I will take a look at the key factors in the past half a century that have contributed to the present situation and suggest some solutions.
- John Carter