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 from this title over the coming weeks.
Birth of the chilled beef export trade
THE main issue on the agenda in Ottawa, Canada, in 1932 was ‘imperial preference’ – the principle that trade goods from members of the British Empire (such as Australia) should get preferential treatment over goods from countries outside the Empire (such as Argentina).
Australia had supported Britain during the war; Argentina had not. Now in the middle of the Great Depression, the protectionists increasingly supported a notion of preference for members of the British Empire.
Former Australian Prime Minister Stanley Bruce led the Australian delegation to Ottawa with his principal advisor on the meat industry, William Angliss.
Bruce argued for a ‘united and strong British Empire’ which would be assisted by imperial preference in trade.
Britain needed markets for its manufactured goods. The colonies needed markets for their farm commodities.
Until the 1930s, Australia had shipped only frozen meat to Britain. Chilled meat was becoming more attractive to UK consumers as the technology improved, especially out of Argentina, so restricting Argentina’s access to the UK market by imperial preference would particularly benefit Australia’s chilled product aspirations.
The Ottawa conference resulted in quotas restricting the volume of Argentine chilled beef imported by the UK. It also included an agreement by Australia and New Zealand to limit their frozen mutton and lamb exports.
Britain preferred the Argentine chilled beef over Australian frozen, so these new arrangements were entered into with some reluctance.
As Australia and New Zealand had only 15 per cent of UK beef imports at the time, it also represented enormous potential.
The Australian Minister for Trade and Customs allocated the Australian quotas between the States, which then split the quota among processors. The quotas applied during 1933 although Britain reserved the right to impose restrictions after June 1934 if required.
Amendments to the Ottawa agreement in 1935 and 1936 further restricted Argentina’s chilled beef volumes to the UK. Australian meat remained subject to quotas but it was duty-free and chilled beef could be substituted for frozen.
Previous experimental chilled beef shipments from Australia to the United Kingdom had failed for a variety of reasons including processing standards, hygiene as well as cost.
In 1909 a number of experiments were carried out in Queensland in conjunction with London agents W Weddel & Co.
The QME&A works at Eagle Farm in Brisbane conducted chilled beef trials on the vessel the Marathon that year, the initial voyage taking 62 days.
The trials proved chilled beef was possible from Australia but the costs out weighted the returns and the trade and technology was never progressed.
The quotas resulting from imperial preference in 1932, however, now saw a significant price premium arise for chilled product, prompting renewed interest in chilled technology in Australia.
In 1932, FJ Walker made the first successful commercial chilled beef shipment to the UK from its Aberdeen plant in NSW and followed up with another two shipments in 1933.
Thomas Borthwicks made a similar shipment from its Moreton plant in Brisbane in 1933 on the SS Mooltan. Around 70 per cent of the product was condemned on arrival but the seed was sown.
Borthwicks at Portland sent six shipments the following year and these were far more successful, although reliable shipping remained an issue - some shipments in 1934 took only 39 days while others had transit times of 60 to 70 days.
After its formation in 1936, the Australian Meat Board (AMB) took over control of chilled quotas to the UK and because of the shipping times, ended up allocating 80 per cent of the quota to Queensland.
Temperature variation was the main problem. CSIRO (the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) tests at Cannon Hill in 1933 using British carbon dioxide technology proved conclusively that it could extend shelf life when combined with good hygiene.
In August 1933, FJ Walker and William Angliss sent the first cargo of chilled beef using CO2 chambers and Borthwicks ran a similar trial from New Zealand.
Cannon Hill quickly became the main source of chilled beef exports using CO2. CSIRO did the research but it was the export processors who bore the risks and financial responsibility of making it successful.
The Vestey Group from the UK and Swift & Co and Wilson Packing from the US all had substantial beef investments in Argentina and Brazil. Declining South American access to Britain and increasing access for Australia under imperial preference, encouraged renewed investment in Australian processing assets.
The most famous of these investments was the Vestey family’s purchase of William Angliss & Sons in 1934.
Others included Wilson’s purchase of an interest in Brisbane Wholesale Meats in 1935 and Swift & Co’s stake in Sims Cooper.
Borthwick already had processing capability in Australia but now moved to expand that by purchasing Bowen in Queensland. Lord Vestey had reportedly opposed imperial preference in Ottawa to protect his Argentine interests, but once the decision had been made, followed market opportunities with the Angliss purchase.
The decline in shipments from South America under imperial preference also led to surplus shipping capacity.
The ships servicing Argentina were designed for the chilled quarter beef trade and therefore didn’t suit the frozen trade from Australia.
Vestey’s Blue Star Line built five new ‘Empire Food Ships’ for their new Australian business - the first two were on the berth by 1935 - and put its chilled beef expertise to good use as
Australian chilled shipments increased from nothing in 1932 to around 26,700 tons per year in the late 1930s.
The trade ceased during WWII due to a lack of suitable ships, the result of heavy losses during WWII and the trade was still hampered after the war by lack of suitable shipping and problems associated with shipping schedules.
This remained largely the state of play until the Japan market, vacuum packaging technology and containerisation opened up new opportunities in 1970.
An edited extract from World on a Plate: A History of Meat Processing in Australia which is available for purchase online.