The Australian red meat industry is facing challenging times, with attention growing around healthy diets, veganism and plant-based proteins.
So how do producers and processors keep their beef, sheep and goat meat on plates here and abroad?
How do they also increase the appetite for meat when some consumers are turning their backs due to environmental and welfare concerns?
Those issues dominated at this week’s Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Red Meat Conference in Tamworth, where researchers, analysts and producers shared their insights into how the sector could move with a changing marketplace.
Provenance more than a fancy word
What now plays an even bigger role in selling Australian-grown meat is provenance; the origin of the animal on your plate.
It has become increasingly important to consumers to know the story of how an animal was produced, where it was produced, that it was treated humanely and came from an environmentally conscious operation.
Sharing the narrative of the products is becoming more difficult, particularly as veganism grows and animal activists become more vocal through protests and social media.
One example of a new direction is the approach taken by Lachlan Graham, the chief executive of Argyle Food Group, an operation integrated from breeding, fattening and processing to sales, marketing and distribution.
Based on the South West Slopes of New South Wales, it supplies the domestic market, and exports to multiple markets around the world.
“We focus on value-adding and that actually gives us a platform to sell the story.”
That story explains the animal’s life — from its birth to its arrival on the supermarket shelf.
“We have developed an on-farm livestock production software system that monitors every animal, where it came from, its cost basis and what diet it was on,” Mr Graham said.
All of the data is available to a consumer when they scan a code using their phone.
What does the consumer think?
The most valuable market for Australian-grown red meat is in fact Australia, but the pressures from alternative proteins are increasing.
So to keep red meat sizzling in Aussie kitchens, MLA has invested in learning more about what consumers think, feel and want.
It includes what MLA says is world-first shopping research, with virtual reality used to see how customers behaved when they shopped for meat.
Along with wanting to know the provenance of meat they buy, domestic market manager Graeme Yardy said convenience was an important factor for consumers.
“We have to find those things that meet their needs, they want to know how great is this going to taste, what is the quality like, and how is this going to make their life easier.”
Restaurants were another important factor in selling red meat and engaging consumers, he said.
“They’re like an independent body and they’re the types of people that can really influence how people shop and dine.”
Despite the conversations around better eating, animal welfare and alternative proteins, consumer data showed the number of households that ate beef (90 per cent) and lamb (76 per cent) last year was still high, MLA said.
Unlocking new markets
When it comes to producers, it isn’t easy to expand opportunities for your product when consumer demand is constantly changing.
For Emily Pullen from southern Queensland, she and her family found a way to unlock new, high-value products for their beef.
The Pullens are cattle producers turned jerky makers, using the protein-snack space to share their product on a bigger stage.
Finding ways to sell meat in different markets was another way to engage consumers and share the industry’s story, Ms Pullen said.
She said the snack market had plenty of potential for the red meat industry, particularly with consumers becoming more health focused.
Service stations, in particular, are proving to be a growing market for her family’s jerky.
“It is an emerging space for sure … as a country, we think more about what we are eating, and we’re starting to pause and think: ‘Do I need to eat a packet of lollies in my next journey or should I have something slightly better for me?'”
Opening up farms
More and more producers are also being encouraged to open up their farms as a way to increase transparency and tell their stories.
Mr Yardy said less than 40 per cent of Australians had been to a farm.
“That’s the lowest it’s ever been, so there is a gap and we’re an increasingly urban society and it’s now harder just to get to a farm,” he said.
Through MLA’s Good Meat program, virtual reality is used to take people through the full supply chain, from paddock to plate.
Chefs are also taken to cattle and sheep stations to show them what goes into producing sustainable meat.