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Production practices for red meat in Australia.

Since its beginnings with the arrival of the First Fleet over 200 years ago, our red meat industry has delivered a significant contribution to the economic, social and cultural development of our nation, to the point today where it represents Australia's largest rural sector and, with a total economic contribution of $15.5 billion, is among Australia's major industries.

Australia's red meat industry has built a reputation around the globe as a leader in agricultural production and marketing practice, developing and adopting new technologies and systems to better meet customer and community needs. Australia accounts for around 3% of global red meat production, yet is second only to Brazil as the world's largest exporter of red meat. However, with price premiums for Australian beef and sheepmeats, Australia dominates global exports in value terms, accounting for 25% of global trade.

We have attained this position by recognising consumer and cultural tastes in individual markets and by producing red meat in the style to meet each market need. Australia is now a major supplier of red meat to over 100 countries. Australia's largest markets are shown in Table 1.


Australian consumers demonstrate in their food purchasing behaviour that they have taken the 'reduce fat intake' message to heart. This is apparent in red meat, where the number one selling item in retail meat cases is Extra Lean Mince ([less than or equal to]5% fat content). Retailers have responded across their red meat range with product specifications, typically including marbling scores of 0-2 (on a 7-point scale). Trimming specifications on external fat are typically a maximum of 3 mm. While some up-market restaurants in Australia promote heavily marbled meat as an indulgence, the vast majority of red meat offered for everyday family consumption in Australia is lean.


Australian production practices vary to meet the different market needs. In northern Australia, tropical breeds such as Brahmans are reared on pasture mainly to service the global lean frozen market for blending into hamburgers. In southern and central Australia, European and British breeds (e.g. Angus, Hereford) are reared on pasture to supply lean chilled beef for the domestic market, but also for fattening in feed lots to supply the north Asian marbled beef market. Marbled beef is produced by feeding cattle with grain for periods ranging from 100 days up to 300 days. This is Grain-Fed beef. Grain can also be used to finish grass-fed cattle, typically for periods of 40-70 days. This does not produce marbling, nor sufficiently alter the nutrition profile from purely grass-fed beef. This is Grain-Finished beef and, along with pasture-fed beef, is a style widely consumed in Australia.

Around one-third of Australia's annual cattle turnoff of 8-9 million head are now lot-fed (i.e. either grain-fed or grain-finished). This level has grown in the past two years as a direct result of the drought, where there has been insufficient pasture for finishing, and of the extraordinary demand for marbled beef from north Asia due to the USA's exclusion from these markets arising from their bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) incidents (Figure 1).

Even so, most of the cattle passing through Australian feedlots in 2006 were grain-finished rather than grain-fed (Figure 2). This is in contrast to feeding practices in other countries (e.g. USA), where most cattle are grown on corn from weaning. Given that most of our animals have spent nearly all of their lives on pasture, Australian beef (particularly that on the domestic market) can continue to be described as 'predominantly grass-fed'.

In the sheep sector, lamb continues to be overwhelmingly grass-fed. While some grain feeding of lamb has emerged in recent years, this is mainly to supplement drought-affected pastures and to produce larger lamb carcases for the US market.


Our grazing industries cover 57% of Australia's land mass, and therefore have a crucial role to play in sustainable environmental management. Given Australia's predominantly pasture-fed production system for red meat in Australia, most of our meat is produced using three naturally available resources, that is, rain, grass and sunshine.

It has been suggested by some that these resources could be used for more efficient purposes than meat production. However, those suggestions make the assumption that these resources can be captured and diverted for alternative uses, such as producing plant foods. Most livestock production, not only in Australia but around the world, takes place on marginal land and soil types that are not suitable for cropping. Were this land and resources not used for grazing, they would be largely wasted for food production, putting even greater cropping pressure on more arable land areas. Indeed, if Australia were to replace the dietary protein contribution from its meat production through additional grain, we would need an increased arable land mass of around 260 000 [km.sup.2], almost the equivalent of the combined land area of Victoria and Tasmania.



Even with grain-feeding production systems, an assumption is made by some that the grain for animals could be better used in the human food supply. In Australia, typically these grains are unfit for human consumption; otherwise, economics would encourage their direction into the processed food sector. Unfortunately, many of these assumptions emanate from the USA, where heavy government subsidies in the US corn industry distort their markets to such an extent that it is cheaper to feed animals good-quality corn than to graze them on pasture.

Greenhouse gases

It is calculated that our livestock industries contribute around 12% of Australia's greenhouse gas production, largely through methane output from the animals. The industry has been successful in reducing this by 6% since 1990 (Australian Greenhouse Office), but clearly more work is needed.

A key plank has been to implement genetic technology, which has enabled producers to breed animals that are more efficient in their feed intake and conversion. The benefits of this improvement in feed conversion are threefold.

* Less feed is required so production costs fall. This is very important in dry conditions when feed costs rise.

* More meat is produced from less feed, increasing herd productivity.

* Less greenhouse gasses are produced as feed intake is reduced.

Other opportunities lie in capturing methane from animal wastes and using this for energy production. For example, a meat-processing plant in southern NSW is already well advanced in developing this technology to become self-sufficient in its energy needs. Research is underway into improved feed types and livestock rumen function to further help reduce methane production.


Australia's beef, lamb and mutton production is predominantly grass-fed, and antibiotics are used sparingly for therapeutic reasons. In the lot-feeding industry, in-feed antimicrobials are used when required, as important management tools designed to prevent conditions in cattle such as bloat and acidosis.

Concerns about antibiotic resistance in humans through animal use of antibiotics are receiving attention internationally. The debate about links between the use of these products in animals and human health problems continues. Argument at this stage is based on the supposition that transfer of resistance could occur via the food chain. The registration of antibiotics for use in animals in Australia is controlled by the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority, which only allows antibiotic use in cattle for therapeutic purposes. In Australia, we do not see the levels of antibiotic resistance in bacteria from cattle or sheep that are seen in some other countries.

The principal in-feed antimicrobials used in the red meat industry (i.e. polyether ionophores) differ from those used by other industries, in that they are not used in human treatment and resistance to these is unlikely to pose a problem. Animals treated with such veterinary treatments are required to be withheld from the market for defined periods and the Australian Government's National Residue Survey monitors for any residues that may be contained in the meat.


Growth promotants are anabolic (muscle building) agents used to increase growth rates and the conversion of food to muscle (feed-conversion efficiency). Hormones used in growth promotants occur naturally in a wide range of animals and some plants. Growth promotants have the same effect on animals as the natural hormones that are produced by our body's organs to regulate growth.

Hormonal growth promotants are used to maintain growth during poor pasture conditions, particularly in northern Australia, and within the feedlot industry. Hormonal growth promotants, given to cattle as slow-release implants (under the skin of the ear), increase the feed-conversion efficiency, thus reducing energy, feed usage and environmental impacts.

Hormones are naturally present in infinitesimal amounts in all meat, whether from implanted animals or not. Hormone levels in the meat from animals implanted with growth promotants are much lower than those occurring naturally in beef produced from cows and bulls. For instance, cow meat contains natural female hormones at levels up to 60 times the amount in beef from implanted steers. Bull beef contains around 40 times the amount of naturally occurring male hormone than the amount of hormone found in implanted heifer beef.

The amount of oestrogen in plant-source foods is greater than in meat. The human body produces hormones in quantities much greater than would ever be consumed by eating beef or other foods. Exhaustive scientific tests carried out over many years have not shown growth promotants pose any risk to human health or safety.


Until 1986 when BSE, popularly known as 'mad cow disease', was first described, the diseases known collectively as the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs) had excited only limited scientific interest. Their incidence was extremely low, and there was no evidence that these diseases had crossed from animals to man to cause vCJD. Given that cases of BSE are thought to have occurred as a result of feeding TSE-infected animal-rendered meal products to cattle, a number of precautionary measures have been undertaken by the Australian industry.

Animal Health Australia maintains the National TSE Surveillance Program (NTSESP) consistent with the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) International Animal Health Code. The Code assures all countries importing cattle and sheep products that Australia remains free of BSE and scrapie. The NTSESP involves the detailed examination of several hundred cattle and sheep with signs of neurological disease that could be mistaken for a TSE. Animals eligible for examination are deemed to be at risk, and are selected from both field and abattoir cases showing signs of neurological disease.

A number of legislative changes affecting ruminant feeding have been enacted in all states, and awareness campaigns and audits are conducted to ensure industry compliance with these changes. Feeding of ruminant animal products to cattle is prohibited by law. This is further reinforced through the industry's food-safety declarations accompanying all livestock sales.

It is important to note that there has never been any natural occurrence of scrapie in sheep in Australia. In 1952, a mob of sheep imported into Australia were diagnosed with the disease. The mob was destroyed and no documented trace of the disease has ever been recorded in Australia. The European Union's Scientific Steering Committee and the OIE have classified Australia as one of the few countries with the lowest possible risk rating for BSE.

While there have been some 160 reported deaths from vCJD in the UK and in Europe, to date there have been no cases in Australia. Those Australians considered at risk are those who lived in the UK in the late 1970s and early 1980s and who consumed British beef or beef products.


Australia is a global leader in on- and off-farm quality assurance and food-safety systems. Livestock Production Assurance is an on-farm food-safety certification program for cattle, sheep and goats that ensures that producers meet all food safety and animal disease requirements in raising their livestock. Over 180 000 properties are registered in this program, and they provide food-safety declarations (National Vendor Declarations) on all livestock sold. Additional quality assurance modules covering animal welfare and environmental standards are in development. Similar quality assurance systems operate in the Feedlot sector (National Feedlot Accreditation Scheme) and in the processing sector (various systems).

All cattle in Australia are individually tagged with a radio-frequency identification device at property of birth, and movements of individual animals through properties, sale-yards, feedlots and live export depots are recorded on a national database. This is the National Livestock Identification System (NLIS). NLIS means the Australian industry can instantly locate and isolate all animals associated with a food-safety or animal-disease incident. Traceability in the sheepmeat industry is provided by the use of visual tags indicating the property of birth, along with an accompanying National Vendor Declaration.

Eating quality of beef and sheepmeat is assured through a grading system, Meat Standards Australia. The result of extensive consumer sensory testing, this acclaimed system identifies and certifies critical management practices right through the supply chain to ensure high consumer satisfaction. A mandatory requirement of this system includes on-farm animal welfare guidelines to ensure that animals' lives are devoid of stress.


Australia's red meat industry has achieved its position as leader in world trade through its global reputation for safe, nutritious, high-quality beef and lamb. This position is no accident. Generations of producers and processors have built an industry that is responsive to, and anticipates changes in, consumer and community expectations in every market in which we operate. For Australian consumers, this culture means that we can look forward to enjoying some of the world's best beef and lamb for decades to come.


Meat & Livestock Australia Ltd, Sydney, Australia
Table 1 Characteristics of Australia's largest markets for red meat

markets Major styles Market position

Australia * Lean chilled beef Australian-produced red meat dominates
 * Lean chilled lamb our domestic market, with negligible
 imports (mainly from New Zealand).
Japan * Heavily marbled Australia is the largest supplier of
 chilled beef for beef to Japanese consumers.
 retail and
 * Lean frozen beef
 for blending into
 * Lean chilled lamb
USA * Lean frozen beef Australia is the second largest supplier
 for blending into of beef to US consumers, where our
 hamburgers lean beef is highly valued for
 * Lean chilled beef blending with US-produced fattier beef
 for restaurants to make good hamburgers.
 * Lean chilled lamb Australia is the second largest supplier
 of lamb to American consumers.
Korea * Heavily marbled Australia is the largest supplier of
 chilled beef for beef to Korean consumers.
 retail and
 * Lean frozen beef
 for blending into
COPYRIGHT 2007 Dietitians Association of Australia
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Title Annotation:APPENDIX
Author:Thomason, David
Publication:Nutrition & Dietetics: The Journal of the Dietitians Association of Australia
Date:Sep 1, 2007
Previous Article:Reducing the meat and livestock industry's environmental footprint.

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