In Australia, we’re lucky to have a wide-ranging group of government departments and industry non-profits who ensure the meat we’re eating meets basic quality requirements.
That means we’re always able to purchase enjoyable produce sourced from farms with good standards of animal welfare.
However, we still have the option to choose from different quality standards. Online butchers like ButcherCrowd deliver ultra-premium cuts of meat across Australia, whilst our two major supermarket chains focus on meeting the minimum acceptable standards to keep costs low.
Let’s explore the different standards available, and explore how you’re able to ensure you’re always buying the highest quality meat available.
Understanding the Factors that Determine Meat Quality in Australia
When it comes to the quality of meat in Australia, a variety of elements come into play. These primarily include:
- The breed, age, and mass of the animal.
- How the animal was raised.
- The cuts used.
Ultimately, these factors play a significant role in determining the flavour and texture of the meat. Each type of animal will have slightly unique factors that play a more/less important role in the quality of their meat.
Perhaps more importantly, meat quality is synonymous with the ethics and sustainability of a carnivorous diet. It’s a factor that’s pushing more than 1 in 10 Australians into vegetarian or vegan diets.
It’s rare to find that meat producers can improve the quality of their meat by cutting costs, so the inverse of that means you will be paying a premium for meat that is better tasting and more ethically produced.
That leads to the generally accepted advice that you should purchase the highest quality meat you can reasonably afford. Thus reducing your impact on the planet and enhancing your meal-time experience.
Let’s have a look at what this means for the most commonly eaten meats in Australia: Beef, Chicken, and Lamb.
What to Look for When Identifying Quality Beef
There are varying standards to look for, depending on whether taste or ethical standards are more important to you.
The Quality of Beef
The first thing to look for is the Meat Standards Australia (MSA) label. They use a 16-input grading system to determine the quality of each cut of beef from a producer.
These inputs include a wide variety of factors including maturity, marbling, pH, hanging method, and meat colour.
Ultimately, all MSA products will be graded within three levels of eating quality (source: MLA.com) :
- MSA Three (MSA Graded)
- MSA Four (Premium Quality)
- MSA Five (Supreme Quality)
Whilst the MSA labelling indicates the meat has passed a minimum of MSA Three grading, you may need to check the packaging more closely to understand which grade the meat has received.
Beyond grading, you should also ideally look at the colour, marbling, and smell of the meat you’re considering purchasing. If you’re not able to inspect the meat before purchase, it’s always worth purchasing your beef from a reputable provider who can deliver the meat safely.
The Ethical Standards of Beef
There are hundreds of ethical and sustainable factors that can be controlled in a beef farming environment. Globally, these are codified in the Certified Humane system and their label is a very good sign that your beef is ethically sourced.
However, since this mark is less common in Australia I’ll share some of the key factors you should look out for when assessing beef products:
- Lifetime Traceable – The producer should be able to provide detailed traceable information about where the cow has lived for its entire life, and all locations should be certified as humane farms.
- 100% Grass-Fed – Grain feeding is common in the industry as a way to grow cows larger and faster, but it is less natural and results in less tender beef.
- No Added Hormones – Some farms are known to add Hormone Growth Promotants (HPGs) to quickly develop cows to a maturity when they can be slaughtered.
- No Antibiotics – Antibiotics can be used to promote growth or feed efficiency.
- Free Range – Cows should never have been confined to a feedlot or limiting housing conditions.
- Free from GMO – Genetically modified or cloned animals come with significant ethical issues.
There’s a 57-page standards list with many additional criteria for Certified Humane certification.
The standards list is regularly updated to ensure that the animals are treated in the most humane way possible. In addition, it is regularly tested against the latest scientific evidence to ensure that the standards are in line with current animal welfare practices.
What To Look For When Identifying Quality Lamb
We’ll again split the concept of quality into two areas, considering the flavour/texture and ethical factors separately.
Identifying High-Quality Lamb
Similar to beef, Meat Standards Australia provides a set of clear guidelines on how sheepmeat (including lamb, mutton, and hogget) should be treated to retain the best eating experience.
Each producer is measured against the following processing criteria before they can qualify for MSA certification:
- Lairage – Ensuring time off feed before processing is less than 48 hours.
- Ultimate pH – Ensuring the meat reacts appropriately to chilling.
- Carcase Hanging – Must be using the Achilles hang method or by tenderstretch.
- Ageing – Minimum ageing period of 5 days before it is sold to the consumer.
- QA System – Quality assurance systems must be in place, and processors must be AUS-MEAT accredited.
Different additional criteria exist depending on the breed of sheep and type of sheepmeat being produced.
Unlike the beef standards, there is only one level of accreditation for a producer to become MSA certified. Again, this should be labeled on the carton with a cooking method specified.
Ethical Standards For Lamb
In Australia, we have a set of guidelines that act as both standards and recommendations for state law to regulate the welfare and treatment of sheep. These were developed by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) with Australia’s federal government.
A farm may also elect to register with the Australian Livestock Processing Industry Animal Welfare Certification System (AAWCS). Achieving this mark ensures that the sheep have been managed based on strong animal welfare criteria such as the OIE Animal Health Code and SCARM, with establishments being audited annually.
In comparison to beef, lamb has fewer standards or guidelines to check for. However, you should always consider whether your lamb is being listed as free-range and 100% grass-fed as these are strong indicators of their living conditions.
What To Look For When Identifying Quality Chicken
Identifying High-Quality Chicken
There is no official grading system in place for the quality of Australian chicken meat, likely due to the limited variability found in chicken meat.
One research study from Belgium indicated that free-range birds had a similar taste to factory-farmed chicken, but did tend to be “juicier”, “more tender” and “less fibrous”. However, it’s unlikely you would notice a significant difference when cooking yourself at home.
Ethical Standards For Chicken
As with Lamb, there are a clear set of guidelines set out by the DAFF. This time, using an organisation called AgriFutures Australia.
These guidelines set out mandatory and optional behaviours for chicken growers related to egg management and incubation, housing and husbandry, bird health, and handling and transport. All establishments involved in the chicken industry must comply with these standards.
To identify chicken meat that meets higher ethical standards, Australia has three independent accreditation systems:
- FREPA – The Free Range Egg and Poultry Australia organisation works with auditors to accredit free-range farmers to ensure chickens can “routinely access an enriched outdoor range area, age and weather permitting”. This is done through a set of standards farms must follow.
- RSPCA – The RSPCA is well known for its public activism, but they also accredit chicken farms based on over 100 standards being met. They ensure chickens are kept in conditions with space to move around, be active, enjoy foraging behaviours, breathe fresh air, and are treated humanely. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are free-range chickens. Read more for details of their standards.
- ACO – Australian Certified Organic accredit farms that meet strict Organic standards that focus on using no synthetic chemicals, pesticides, or herbicides. Their standards are available on their website.
Whilst the Australian standards for chicken are relatively high, it shows strong ethical credentials if any farm displays either FREPA, ACO, or RSPCA accreditation. Choice drew up a fantastic comparison between the 3 accreditations.
The Necessity of Knowing Where Your Meat Comes From
As a consumer, it is essential to find out whether the meat is from a reputable source and meets the standards set by the Australian government. To set higher standards, look for additional accreditations that focus on animal welfare.
Making sure you know where your meat comes from is an important step in ensuring that you are consuming healthy, safe, and high-quality meat. I hope that knowing the different meat standards in Australia will help you make an informed decision next time you’re buying meat products.