• Image: Getty Images
    Image: Getty Images
MEQ CEO, Remo Carbone. (Image: MEQ)
MEQ CEO, Remo Carbone. (Image: MEQ)

With Australia recently grabbing 11 top spots on the world’s 101 best steak restaurants list for 2024, it’s safe to say that we know our way around a prime cut. While it’s common knowledge that a well-marbled steak makes for tastier eating, there’s no official international measure for what constitutes quality meat.

Different jurisdictions also have different focuses and priorities, some grading based on meat eating quality while others, like the EU’s EUROP system, grading on carcass conformation (shape and muscle development) and fat cover.

In America, the USDA grades beef carcasses based on marbling and maturity to predict palatability. Some of the grades include Prime, Choice and Select. In Japan, the Japan Meat Grading Association uses an A, B, C grade for yield and a 1-5 scale for meat quality for Wagyu measurement, with A5 considered the best of both. 

In Australia, the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) program was developed by the red meat industry to improve eating quality consistency of beef and sheep meat. It’s based on over 1.7 million consumer taste tests and considers all factors affecting eating quality from farm to plate.

All these standards focus on ensuring quality, food safety, transparency, and consistency in red meat production. However, they are not consistent across jurisdictions. In an increasingly globalised world reliant on international trade and with sophisticated technology that allows us to measure meat quality more effectively and objectively than ever before, is it time for global standards on red meat quality? 

Having a single international rating system for red meat would have several benefits.

Simplified trade

Meat exporters who currently have to meet different standards in different markets would have an easier experience with compliance. More consistency in quality and production processes across countries would also ensure a level playing field for international trade. This is especially relevant where Free Trade Agreements exist between two nations (such as Australia and the UK).

Additionally, consumption patterns have evolved to a place where almost every part of an animal is used for a different purpose. Given this complexity, the supply chain would benefit from a standardised grading system to simplify processing.

Increased transparency

A single standard would lead to increased transparency in the global meat supply chain. A global standard would also incentivise continuous improvement. As consumer awareness and demand for responsible and sustainable meat production grows, the standard would evolve to reflect these expectations, driving the industry to adopt more advanced practices.

Consumer clarity

Consistent quality information would make it easier for consumers to compare products from different countries and make informed purchasing decisions. This is especially relevant in the current economic climate where everybody is watching their budget and needs assurance that they are getting what they are paying for.

While the benefits are clear, there are some downsides to setting a single standard.

Loss of regional autonomy

Forced to conform to an international system, producers would lose the current flexibility they have in adapting standards to local conditions. Different grading systems are tailored to factors such as production methods, regional consumer preferences and market conditions. A global standard might not fully capture these local nuances, and there could be a loss of unique products.

Small-scale producers priced out

Transitioning to a new system will take considerable time, effort and financial investment. Small producers, in particular, may struggle to allocate resources for training their workforce on new protocols and investing in infrastructure upgrades to meet the standard's requirements. Re-grading existing stock could also disrupt existing supply chains, further exacerbating the challenges for smaller players who rely on stability and consistency in their operations. The administrative burden of regulatory compliance could also disproportionately burden small producers, who may lack the manpower to navigate complex regulatory frameworks.

Difficulties in enforcement

Enforcement of a global red meat quality standard would be a many-headed beast. Some jurisdictions- developing countries in particular- may lack the necessary infrastructure and resources for effective enforcement, while limited funding and technical capacity could further hinder implementation. Moreover, the diversity of production systems and supply chains in developing countries complicates enforcement. Small-scale producers, informal markets, and decentralised processing facilities make it difficult to monitor all actors along the supply chain.

While the idea of establishing a single international standard for red meat quality holds promise in terms of streamlining trade, enhancing transparency, and empowering consumers with clearer information, it also presents challenges. The loss of regional autonomy could limit producers' ability to tailor standards to local conditions and preferences, potentially leading to the homogenisation of products and the loss of unique regional varieties. Small-scale producers may face hurdles in adapting to the new system, both financially and operationally, which could widen existing disparities in the industry.

Additionally, enforcing a global standard poses significant challenges, particularly in developing countries where infrastructure and resources may be lacking. Despite these obstacles, exploring the feasibility of a global standard remains a worthwhile endeavour, provided that it is implemented thoughtfully and inclusively to address the diverse needs and contexts of producers worldwide.

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