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, released earlier this year.
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).
Australia’s first big shift away from supplying the British Empire with meat came in the late 1950s, when Australia had a 15-year contract to send all its surplus meat to food-strapped postwar Britain.
Then American buyers arrived on the scene. They offered such good terms for grinding beef that Australia changed its contract with Britain and started directing beef to the United States.
That changed everything. In 1958, Australia shipped 93,748 tonnes of beef to the United Kingdom, and 6134t to the US. By 1963, shipments to the UK had fallen to 25,628t, and shipments to the US had jumped to 208,811t.
This also changed the nature of meatworks, Mr Martyn said. The UK trade was conducted in “quarter beef” portions that required minimal breaking down. The US market needed boning rooms, the first step in a march toward greater abattoir sophistication that began to make smaller operations unviable.
The next great change occurred with the opening up of the high-value Japanese and Korean markets in the late 1980s, culminating in almost total dominance of the markets when US beef was banned over BSE concerns in 2003.
Mr Martyn said North Asia signalled the Australian beef industry’s “ability to identify what the market is looking for, and deliver it”.
“If you read all the American commentary in the late 1980s to early 1990s, when the Japanese market liberalised under American pressure, they discounted Australia as being anything other than a low-quality grassfed competitor,” he recalled.
“They found to their dismay that yes, that’s what we’d been shipping because that’s what the quota system allowed, but suddenly we were putting high-quality grainfed chilled beef into Japan and taking a lot of their market share.”
Now Mr Martyn sees the beef industry on the cusp of another great shift, towards the rising middle classes of Asia.
Australia’s meat sectors have never confronted a market of 300 million people, Asia’s forecast middle class population by 2020.
Success in securing a profitable share of that market promises to change everything, again.
The World on a Plate: A History of Meat Processing in Australia can be ordered online.