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Food & Beverage

Australian beef in high-tech push against fraudsters

Edible electronic etching allows meat to be traced from pasture to plate

Australian scotch fillet steak, A$33 per kilogram at a Coles supermarket (Photo by Geoff Hiscock)

SYDNEY -- The deal is done, there is a fat China contract in the pipeline, and it is time to celebrate with that new business partner at a fancy restaurant on The Bund in Shanghai.

So naturally you order the most expensive item on the menu -- $375 to share a half-kilogram cut of prime wagyu beef carrying the name of an ace Australian breeder. You know it is the real deal because this restaurant has a name for quality and authenticity. But... there is a nagging little 0.001% doubt: what if someone, somewhere along the supply chain, swapped it for a cheaper cut of meat? There is so much food substitution and adulteration these days in China that it is hard to be absolutely certain.

No problem -- with a theatrical flourish at the table, the "beef sommelier" whips out a smartphone, fires up the relevant app, points it at the steak and hey presto, up comes the meat's entire provenance, right back to the animal's parentage, the farm where it was raised, the pasture on which it grazed, the number of days on grain, and when and where it was processed.

Fantasyland? For now, yes. But this scenario could become reality over the next 12 months if things go to plan for beef producers involved in the "Food Trust Platform" currently under development in Australia by accounting group PricewaterhouseCoopers and its partners.

The secret is in the invisible spray -- microscale silicon dioxide "cubes" almost as fine as the finest flour, sprayed on to a side of beef at the point of processing through an electronic etching procedure that creates a trackable serialized bar code for every steak.

PwC Australia agribusiness leader Craig Heraghty (Courtesy of PwC Australia)

The etching process is approved by the government's Food Standards Australia and can withstand freezing temperatures and searing heat in a range from minus 40C up to 1,400C. There is no loss of quality from the invisible marking; nor is the meat's taste affected by the unique "tag" the process creates. The result is what PwC Australia agribusiness representative Craig Heraghty calls "absolutely a step change" for the industry -- a covert, edible, unchangeable tag.

"When we set out to create this technology platform two years ago, our guiding principles were to improve farmgate profitability and to give more information to the customer at the point of consumption," Heraghty told the Nikkei Asian Review. "This will show you the whole supply chain. It will deliver trust to a branded product, and means the farmer's promise can be honored beyond the border."

That should mean even more international credibility too, for top Australian brands such as Jack's Creek -- winner of three "World's best steak" awards -- and David Blackmore's famed wagyu. Globally, there is a pressing need for food safety and authenticity, with the value of counterfeit food products running at about $65 billion a year, according to Western food-safety agencies.

China is both the source of more than 70% of counterfeit food worldwide and its end market. In the meat sector alone, where substitution and adulteration is a $2 billion business globally, about three-quarters of the fraudulent product is sold in China, according to PwC's Heraghty. For example, only half the meat branded as "Australian beef" in China is actually from Australia.

Australian rib eye steaks on the barbecue (Courtesy of Meat & Livestock Australia)

China bought 110,000 metric tons of Australian beef in 2017, valued at 782 million Australian dollars ($573 million at today's rate), according to the meat industry research and development body Meat & Livestock Australia.

MLA predicts that Chinese consumer demand for premium imported beef will continue to grow as the economy shifts more to being consumption-driven, fueled by urbanization and greater disposable income. Australia's main competitors in this market are Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and New Zealand.

While rising incomes in China mean there is a growing demand for richer foods such as meat and dairy, there is also increasing awareness of food safety issues.

A survey by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center in October 2016 found that the percentage of people in China who regard food safety as a matter of great concern has risen from 12% in 2008 to 40% in 2016. This is where the "clean and green" image of countries such as Australia and New Zealand delivers a marketing advantage -- so long as there are no slip-ups and no contamination of exports.

PwC's food trust platform aims to address the safety issue through its emphasis on the provenance of the meat. "The Australian meat industry wants objective measurement," Heraghty noted, "and this technology provides it, along with edibility and uniformity."

Fullblood wagyu cows grazing in Australia (Courtesy of Australian Wagyu Association)

Armed with the information contained in the tagged meat, Heraghty said a beef sommelier could give a restaurant customer a detailed description of climatic conditions where the animal was raised and what its taste characteristics would be.

"We are in the pilot stage of this technology, trialling it with five or six iconic Australian beef brands from the Hunter Valley, the Darling Downs and northern and southern parts of Australia," Heraghty said.

Within Australia, one of the first places to roll out the new tracking system is likely to be Victor Churchill, the upscale Sydney eastern suburbs meat emporium that is to beef what Tiffany is to diamonds.

The late celebrity chef, writer and raconteur Anthony Bourdain termed Victor Churchill simply "the most beautiful butcher shop in the world." Suffice to say, when Bourdain was dreaming up now-abandoned plans for the world's best food hall in New York, his go-to meat man was going to be Anthony Puharich, son of Victor Churchill's creator Victor Puharich.

An example of Jack's Creek grain-fed wagyu beef (Courtesy of Jack's Creek)

Victor Churchill, which sells the very best Blackmore wagyu for A$500 a kilogram, should have PwC's food trust platform up and running within this year.

Australians expect tender juicy steaks at low prices every day -- and the big supermarket chains such as Coles and Woolworths oblige with top quality beef at between A$30 and A$35 a kilogram. That is not wagyu or Black Angus, of course, but with the tracking system adding only a few cents per steak, there is no reason why it cannot be applied widely within the meat trade.

The tracking technology has its genesis in the U.S. pharmaceuticals industry, where for the past 18 months every tablet has been identifiable. Transferring this covert edible bar code to meat may just be a forerunner of how it could be applied to other products where safety and authenticity is paramount.

China's consumers of high-end beef will no longer have to wonder about provenance but Australians, too, will benefit. Come Christmas time Down Under, it may well be a case of fire up the barbecue, switch on the scanner and smell the sweet aroma of genuine wagyu coming down the supply chain.

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