If you bought a steak overseas and it was labelled ‘Australian beef’, you would probably presume the meat came from Australia.
But that is not always the case. Counterfeit ‘Australian beef’ is a trade worth billions of dollars worldwide.
So how can you tell the difference between real Aussie beef and overseas meat that is fraudulently branded as Australian?
Pricewaterhouse Coopers [PwC] is developing technology which can identify Australian meat when it is scanned with a smartphone.
Craig Heraghty, national agribusiness leader at PwC, said the first part of the process was engraving the meat when it was processed in Australia.
“A business out of the United States has developed a silicon dioxide technology, which is already an accepted food additive … whereby [the formula] is etched onto the packaging … and when looked at with a very sensitive camera lens you can determine the difference in the etching [to tell if the meat is Australian],” he said.
“At the moment we are deploying it on what we call primary packaging, so packaging that is in direct contact with the food itself. So in the case of the steak it could be the bleed pad or the tray or the plastic wrap around it.”
The company is working to get approval to spray the silicon dioxide directly onto the meat, but that requires a rewriting of the food standards code.
“If you imagine a small amount of icing sugar between your finger and your thumb and you are rubbing it together, you can only just feel the icing sugar — it is really, really fine — the silicon dioxide is about the same as that,” Mr Heraghty said.
“However the particles are translucent, so the naked eye can’t see it.
“Silicon dioxide is already approved for use in anti-caking agents like milk powder, and cake mixes.”
The second part of the process is developing technology which can scan the meat to pick up the silicon dioxide etching and tell the consumer information about the meat’s origin.
PwC has been using a microscopic camera to scan the meat, but it wants to develop an app so consumers can scan meat at supermarkets, butchers and in restaurants.
The aim is the app won’t only tell the consumer if the meat is Australian, but will also be able to tell consumers the age of the animal when it was slaughtered, where it was slaughtered, where it was raised, what it was fed, how it was transported, how far it travelled to be slaughtered and so on.
There is even the potential to show a picture of animal when it was on its original farm.
“We can trace the meat back to its NLIS number [trace it back to the farm] … and with some suppliers we will be able to go back through all its genetics as well.
“As a consumer, only certain information will be of value, so we are working with brands to unearth what it is they want to deliver in terms of message.
“And as long as it is the truth, brands will be able to deliver their messages directly to the consumer.”
PwC expects the smartphone app will be available by early next year.
Fake Aussie beef is big business
In the meantime, the technology is being trialled by wholesaler, Vic’s Premium Quality Meat.
CEO Anthony Puharich said he had seen fake ‘Aussie’ branded beef firsthand and that it was “rife” overseas.
“Counterfeit meat and mislabelled meat is big business … and Australian meat is very much in the middle of that as Australia produces, without question, some of the cleanest, greenest, safest, best quality meat in the world, so it is a very desirable product on the export market.
“And unfortunately [mislabelling meat with an Australian logo] is common practice.”
Mr Heraghty said fake Aussie meat was found all over the world.
“We have heard allegations of restaurants naming certain farmers, or certain beef brands or certain regions on their menus, and the product that they are serving is not from those suppliers,” he said.
“It happens in the United States, it happens across Europe, it is [the] worst in places like South America and eastern Europe.
“In China … we have done an excessive amount of market research … and the overwhelming feedback we have received is they do not trust their own markets to supply honest product.
“There is a need for this technology around the world so consumers can get the truth about what they are eating.”
What does this mean for farmers?
As a meat wholesaler and retailer, Mr Puharich said he was excited about the technology as it would conclusively prove which meat is high-end Australian produce and which is fake.
He said he expected the technology would revolutionise the meat trade and affect everyone in the supply chain.
“Our farmers work their butts off and are some of the hardest working, passionate, knowledgeable, skilled farmers in the world,” he said.
“I think it is an obligation to them so that they have peace of mind and full confidence that what they have done and their effort into that product is going to be carried through all the way to the end user.