How Australia got chilled beef to Japan

22 Mar, 2015 01:00 AM
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After the war the export of chilled beef quarters to any destination was commercially limited

JUST how far, and how fast, Australia has come in meat processing has been documented by Stephen Martyn in his book, World on a Plate.

The book was a seven-year labour of love for Mr Martyn, who has a deep history in the sector. He is currently the national director, processing, of the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC).

FarmOnline is publishing extracts over the coming weeks.


Chilled beef to Japan: the beginnings

ONE of the defining moments in the development of the Australian beef export sector since World War Two was the utilisation of vacuum packaging technology, together with the introduction of containerised sea-freight to put chilled boneless beef primals into the Japanese market.

What had been a largely low quality frozen grassfed market for Australia expanded - if not exploded - into a major quality driver for the Australian industry over the next 40 years.

The first recorded successful commercial shipment of chilled beef to the United Kingdom was the beef quarters shipped from FJ Walker’s plant at Aberdeen in NSW in 1932.

The trade grew once the technology was mastered and the Sydney Morning Herald even recorded a shipment of chilled beef quarters to Japan in March 1937 by Birt & Co aboard the Japanese OSK Line vessel the Canberra Maru in January that year, out-turning successfully.

War and economics intervened and after the war the export of chilled beef quarters to any destination was commercially limited.

The arrival of the first containerised vessels in Australia in November 1969 opened up a new opportunity to send vacuum packed beef primals to Japan. The preparation for this milestone event, however, had begun almost 30 years earlier.

The vacuum packaging breakthrough - the use of rubber bags for the preservation of frozen meat - was known before World War Two.

Dewy & Almy, an American company, had acquired the De Poix patents covering the invention of the Cryovac process in 1938, convinced there would be a large market for vacuum packaging of frozen beef and lamb in Australia and New Zealand because of their export trade and long shipping distances.

Vacuum packaging could also reduce the four per cent weight loss through dehydration from storage and transport of unpackaged frozen meat.

As part of a trial, whole lamb carcases were vacuum packaged at the Angliss plant at Footscray for the United Kingdom in 1939. The original Cryovac bags had been brought to Sydney that year by Dewy & Almy.

Made of uncured latex, they were inflated using a domestic vacuum cleaner and then reversing the airflow to create the vacuum. Shrinkage was achieved by throwing buckets of hot water over the vacuum packaged product.

The war saw the new technology become unavailable in Australia. Those bags that were available were used to vacuum pack meat for extended storage for French and other troops in the European theatre of World War Two. They even built a factory in London at the request of the UK Ministry of Food in 1940 and a further one was built in Argentina in 1941.

Development of new plastics occurred throughout the war and Dow Chemicals developed a new resin over this period which they named Saran. Saran could be extracted into film with low oxygen permeability and very low moisture vapour transmission rates.

Following the war, Dewy & Almy put Saran and the existing Cryovac technology together to produce a new Cryovac bag that was heat sealable, heat shrinkable and printable.

WR Grace took over Dewy & Almy in 1954 and with it the developments in the Cryovac technology. WR Grace had set its sights on packaging the vast number of sheep/lamb carcases being exported to the UK.

'Breech Seal' bags were made to fit neatly over the hindquarters of lamb carcases. While the export trials to the UK were disappointing, vacuum pack shrinkage was so effective it allowed hams for the Christmas trade to be stockpiled for some months in advance.

The chicken industry, in particular Ingham and Steggles, adapted Cryovac vacuum packaging for frozen chicken in the early 1960s.

This helped to revolutionise storage and distribution. Similarly vacuum packaging of cheese in Cryovac bags began as early as 1955 and allowed the production of rindless cheese, virtually eliminating the traditional 15pc dehydration.

The challenge of meat exports was, however, still unresolved. In 1960 the American firm Swift & Co put Cryovac packaged chilled beef primals from their plants in Argentina into the UK packed in wooden crates. Their success saw trial shipments to San Francisco of Cryovac packaged chilled beef primals from Swift’s Australian plants in Queensland and Victoria.

These shipments were made on the Matson vessels Mariposa and Monterey. These ships were equipped with temperature controls in their meat storage rooms enabling controlled aging. Further shipments were made by Hellaby Limited in New Zealand. The trials were reportedly successful but for various reasons, no commercial trade ensued.

The first trials to Japan

The first post war chilled beef shipments to Japan, however, were a far more considered affair than history has recorded to date.

It was in fact a shipment of 1500 pounds (680 kilograms) packed by Borthwicks (who had been nominated by Australian Meat Exporters' Federal Council - AMEFC - to supply the product) from their Murarrie plant on the Brisbane River. The trial was shipped on the conventional vessel the Arafura ex Brisbane on January 20, 1968, arriving in Yokohama three weeks later.

This was part of an 'experiment' between the Australian Meat Board (AMB), AMEFC, CSIRO and the Japan Chilled Beef Test Import Deliberation Council, which had been set up a year earlier by the Japan Meat Conference to consider chilled shipments.

During 1967, the Japan Meat Conference, representing trade organisations in Japan, had considered the possibility of meeting some imported beef requirements in a chilled form. They formed the Japan Chilled Beef Deliberation Council and invited Ken Wilson, AMB’s representative in Japan at the time, to join the council.

Although frozen beef imports were expanding, it called for frozen temperatures throughout the supply chain, even to small retail outlets. This in turn limited the utilisation of Australian frozen product. It also meant product needed to be defrosted in advance for retail sale, a logistical nightmare.

Chilled beef, on the other hand, was much easier to handle. A refrigerated compartment on the Arafura was adapted to hold the first beef trial under chilled conditions.

Four bodies of beef, two as chilled bone in hinds and crops in a gas flushed chamber, and two fabricated as chilled vacuum packed boneless cuts in cardboard boxes with no gas flushing were sent.

The AMB paid for the meat. All other charges were borne by the council in Japan.

The primals out-turned in good condition as did the hinds and crops. The Japan Meat Council (JMC) conducted taste and microbiological comparison tests against frozen product three weeks after arrival to simulate the time it would take for commercial shipments to reach consumers.

The outcome strongly favoured the chilled product and the JMC report supported a commercial trial shipment. In 1969 the AMB made a presentation of Cryovac packaged chilled beef primals in Japan again supplied by Borthwick & Sons, but this time from its Victorian plant at Brooklyn. This was followed by the first full container as part of a commercial shipment in 1970 by Thomas Borthwick - one of the first container shipments of anything to Japan.

It was consigned to C. Itoh & CO in Kobe. The container carrying 590 cartons left Melbourne on March 29 on the Hakozaki Maru, reaching Osaka on April 26 for transfer to Kobe where it was unpacked on April 29 – a total of 31 days.

A special display and sampling was held on May 1, attended by 86 representatives of the trade in Japan. Brian Linacre from WR Grace travelled to Kobe to oversee the unloading. All parties reported on the good out-turn of the product and the superior eating quality.

The market in Japan

The driving commercial force in the early stages of this new opportunity in Japan was John Palfreyman, marketing manager of Thomas Borthwick & Sons in Australia.

In 1969 the company’s own research of the various quality segments of the Japanese market identified that approximately 15pc of the Japanese market was high quality beef, 40pc was what they called middle class quality and 45pc low class quality.

In terms of the Japanese market, Australian grassfed cattle were satisfying a demand in the low class market only, particularly for canned meats, curries and distribution through low price retail outlets.

Thomas Borthwick & Sons, and in particular John Palfreyman, believed there was an opportunity to supply beef that the Japanese would perceive as high quality relative to what they had previously seen from Australia. He had been influenced by the writings of Max Brunk, a Professor of Marketing at Cornell University in the United States.

Brunk had written on the value-added concept of meat marketing and Palfreyman believed the same concept could be applied to the Japanese market. Part of the concept included correct packaging, and from this debate the concept of the now famous Borthwick wooden pine boxes arose.

Argentina had put chilled primals into the UK in cardboard cartons transported in the bottom of the hulls of conventional vessels. The out-turn had mostly been poor with broken cartons and often lack of temperature control, with some product having frozen.

The idea of adding value by using wooden pine boxes/crates in combination with the better temperature control in the new containerised vessels became a key part of the strategy.

Wooden boxes had been used by the Argentinians as well but the type they used had not been kind to the product. Wooden boxes were already in use for the distribution of vacuum packed cheese, fish and other perishable commodities.

The boxes would have to stand up to rough handling and remain undamaged, with temperature changes and condensation which might leave them moist during transport, a major problem with the Argentine shipments.

The product supplied in the first shipments was a natural fall full-set packed as primals in a wooden box. The original wooden boxes had a cardboard lid with its own printed message about the contents. Some later boxes used all wood. Just underneath the lid was inserted a large card which set out in Japanese characters, a great deal of factual information about the product, including shelf life and that it had been chilled not frozen.

Each card after printing was treated with a plastic coating which gave it a glossy, high quality appearance protecting it against damage from moisture.

Some Japanese retailers valued the wooden box for its timber; others as fuel for their fires and some as reliable evidence to customers (once the product was well-known in the market) of Borthwick's superior quality.

The wooden boxes, however, were too expensive to maintain and were not always kind to the product. They were quickly replaced with reinforced cardboard boxes but the initial image generated by the wooden boxes and the superior quality of the presentation set the early market premium. The reputation has lasted to this day.

The chilled vacuum packed product rapidly gained acceptance by the meat trade in Japan. The 28kg cartons were convenient to handle and presentation was of high quality relative to Japanese domestic product.

Repeat orders quickly followed with strong demand for Borthwick’s chilled vacuum packed meat cuts. Competition soon followed with shipments from other Australian meat exporters - Angliss, Teys Bros, and Swift.

While Borthwicks developed the trade, it was refined with the help of CSIRO scientists such as Barry Johnson, the research and development team at WR Grace, and others.

There were many early problems, especially discolouration and undesirable odours, but the trade continued to evolve and grow and drove new standards in product quality.

The US meat industry did not succeed in emulating this Australian technology until the early 1990s.


An edited extract from World on a Plate: A History of Meat Processing in Australia which is available for purchase online.

FarmOnline

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