AUSTRALIA is reaping the benefits of its hard-earned reputation as a supplier of 'clean and natural' red meat but industry must work to maintain this competitive advantage.
This was the message from Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Chairman David Crombie at the producer-owned company's Annual General Meeting.
Mr Crombie said the outbreak of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) in the UK and the second case of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) in Japan recently had highlighted the importance of Australia's 'clean and natural' reputation.
"Major world events this year ‹ BSE, FMD, 11 September and the global economic malaise ‹ have impacted both world beef trade and our export performance," Mr Crombie said.
"BSE has continued to cast a shadow in Europe while the first case of BSE in Japan has devastated consumer confidence and beef consumption there."
The outbreak of FMD in the UK had graphically demonstrated the vulnerability of a clean herd run under intensive management in a country where there was frequent livestock movement and a "ponderous recording system", Mr Crombie said.
Despite this, Australia had consolidated its position as the world's largest red meat and livestock exporter, he said.
While many other factors such as price competitiveness thanks to a low Australian dollar and market promotion had played a large role, Australia's product integrity and food safety systems had been important, Mr Crombie said.
"Our clean status in Australia for both BSE and FMD has stood us in great stead in our traditional markets and has created opportunities in some other markets," he said.
"This was clearly being illustrated in the Japanese market, where years of work repositioning the Aussie Beef symbol and Australian products as natural, clean and safe was paying off, Mr Crombie said.
"Japanese consumer confidence has collapsed since the BSE incident in September and beef consumption overall has dropped. However while sales of domestic Japanese beef and US product have fallen by more than 70pc, Australian beef sales have fallen less dramatically, by about 30-40pc and have commenced recovery."
A major endorsement for Australian beef's clean reputation came in October through McDonald's $8 million advertising campaign in Japan featuring a large map of Australia and a message that their beef was Australian and therefore clean, safe and natural.
However, Mr Crombie warned that the Australian red meat industry needed to work to maintain this reputation.
Mr Crombie said it was imperative that the adoption of the systems underpinning product integrity ‹ animal identification, National Vendor Declarations and quality assurance schemes throughout the supply chain ‹ were more widely adopted.
"The underpinning of our product integrity is a major challenge for industry if we are to deliver on our promises and capture the full benefits of our clean and natural production systems," he said.