THE potential for Texas steaks to hit meat shelves in Australia given supercharged United States cattle production appears foremost on the minds of our beef marketers.
How that might play out for the domestic beef market, which takes the largest single portion of Australian beef production, was asked of Meat and Livestock market managers at an industry forum in Queensland this week.
MLA trade and market access manager Andrew McCallum said market access requests from the US, Japan, the Netherlands and Vanuatu had been made to the Australian Government and submissions were currently being collected on a review into beef imports.
“Pending the outcome of that review, there would still need to be a period where protocols were established and we’d need to see what sort of conditions would be imposed on imports coming into Australia,” he said.
In the early 2000s, the US did send beef to Australia, about 40 tonnes per annum that went mainly into the high end food service sector.
“This time around, the change is we have one major wholesaler/retailer who is US-owned who may look to seek out US product,” Mr McCallum said.
“Economics will come into it, and margins to determine whether it’s viable, given we are largely self-sufficient.
“It may be there is only potential for seasonal cuts. We seem to love rumps so it may only be one or two cuts if it does occur.”
The domestic market, which accounts for around 30 per cent of beef production, faces a number of headwinds but is also presenting reason for optimism, MLA’s marketing manager Australia Andrew Howie said.
“It’s unique in that our competitors are other proteins - chicken, increasingly pork and, to a degree, lamb,” he said.
“These competitors have identified the current economic conditions are an opportunity to really go after us.”
Mr Howie presented data which showed average beef retail prices have been on a steady incline, almost doubling over the past 15 years with a quite dramatic rise in the past two years.
By comparison, chicken’s average retail price line has remained flat.
“While that’s a challenge, the good news is it has been driven by a small number of cuts,” Mr Howie said.
“Prime steak - that is rump and above - has created a distortion.”
The likes of diced beef, casserole, stir fry strips and roasts haven’t increased and that offers fantastic opportunity, according to Mr Howie.
“That is especially the case when you consider whole-of-carcase utilisation programs and think about the work we do to educate consumers on the fact there is more to beef that a scotchy or sirloin,” he said.
Declining per capita consumption, likewise, doesn’t tell the full story.
Australia’s population mix is changing, Mr Howie explained.
“When you are a heavy consumer of beef and you also have a multicultural policy, anyone who comes to Australia who eats less meat is going to drag the average down,” he said.
Prevailing Western trends, as well, are to consume less meat.
Still, beef is currently priced at almost four times that of its key competitor in the domestic market, chicken.
And the challenges are mounting.
“Like most Western countries, Australians are taking a greater interest in their health and today that is much more complex than just nutrition - it’s also about taking on board a range of things, including how animals are raised,” Mr Howie said.
“We’re time poor, thus the increased interest in pre-prepared meals and ways to get food on the plate faster.
“Time poorness is only likely to get worse - the stats say 91pc of Australians feel overwhelmed on a daily basis.”
In amongst all that, there is a positive message, says Mr Howie, “so chin up everyone.”
The value of beef has grown in the domestic market on average for the past six years and 2016, from a value perspective, was well above the long term average.
Australians have paid more for beef as the cattle shortage has kicked in.
And the work being done to address the challenges, ranging from MLA’s “fridge to fork in 15 minutes” campaign to consumer education on the right ways to prepare cuts, is paying solid dividends.
One area where particular opportunity exists is in the fact consumers think beef is more expensive than it actually is, Mr Howie said.
There is potential to close the gap around price perceptions.