JUST how far, and how fast, Australia has come in meat processing has been documented by Stephen Martyn in his book, World on a Plate.
The book was a seven-year labour of love for Mr Martyn, who has a deep history in the sector. He is currently the national director, processing, of the Australian Meat Industry Council (AMIC).
FarmOnline is publishing extracts over the coming weeks.
The amazing tale of Air Beef
IN the 1940s droving cattle out of the Northern Territory to Queensland meatworks or out of the Kimberly to the Western Australian coast had always affected quality – animals needed to be older to withstand the punishing trip and good condition was ‘walked off’ along the way.
Experience with air freight during WWII in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, gave Gordon Blythe the idea of using air-freight as a solution to the transport problems he faced with cattle on his Kimberly cattle leases in Western Australia at Mount House and Glenroy.
In May 1947 Gordon and his brothers trialled the slaughter of four carcases beside the airstrip at Mount House which, after being hung in ambient conditions from sundown to 2.00am, were flown to Perth arriving a few hours later.
The product was well received and the 'Air Beef' air-freight concept was born.
With WA government approval and an interest free loan, they built an abattoir in 1949 on Glenroy Station next to the new airstrip.
Between 1949 and 1959, cattle from Glenroy Station, Mount House and surrounding properties in WA were slaughtered and chilled and the beef sides flown the 300 kilometres to Wyndham in a DC-3 for further processing and export.
A Bristol Type 170 freighter later replaced the DC-3.
The operation was run by Air Beef Pty Ltd, set up in 1948 by Gordon Blythe, in partnership with Australian National Airways and MacRobertson Miller Airlines.
They did three trips a day in season, carrying 60 head per trip, processing a total of 5000 head in the 20 week season, almost all of it destined for the United Kingdom. The alternative was droving the cattle to Wyndham - a six-week trip.
A federal meat inspector was stationed at Glenroy for the season.
The plan was to build a number of these abattoirs to service the whole Kimberly region by air, although that never eventuated.
While innovative, the Air Beef operation was high cost. The plant trialled vacuum-packed beef cuts in some of the first Cryovac bags ever printed in Australia and flew them to the UK in 1955, but the bags were printed with brand names such as Emu, Koala Bear and Kangaroo, which didn’t send the right message to UK consumers.
The Air Beef concept also suffered from the decline in the UK market for quarter beef and a move to more stringent US processing requirements.
Glenroy in those days still had open-wall ventilation on the slaughter floor.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the WA and federal governments started a major program of road construction to help the Kimberly cattle industry.
This was a boon to the northern works, allowing cattle to be transported by road with minimal weight loss. Until 1958 all cattle delivered to the port of Wyndham had been walked there.
By 1962, a four-week droving trek to Wyndham could be covered in just 12 hours by truck. Younger fat cattle that could not endure the droving trip could be marketed, which increased annual turnoff, and prime cattle could be delivered in smaller consignments, increasing marketing flexibility.
There was a massive growth in the use of road trains as a result, increasing livestock access (and viability) for Derby and Broome in particular.
One of the pioneers of live cattle transport by road in the north was Noel Buntine, who built a trucking empire from just one truck in 1953 to over 60 road trains 10 years later.
There was no doubt that the Air Beef concept had played its part in opening up the opportunity for the cattle industry in the north.
An edited extract from World on a Plate: A History of Meat Processing in Australia which is available for purchase online.