Episode 6 | The Skippy Paradox

 image by permission of the artist: Colin Clarke, Geraldton, WA

image by permission of the artist: Colin Clarke, Geraldton, WA

 If I asked the question: how is WA going to find an abundant source of local, sustainable, hi-quality protein in the future? The answer would be – by eating kangaroos. Once a nutritional mainstay for the custodians of this country and still a favoured food in the regions, kangaroos deserve our respect as environmentally-sustainable grazers supremely adapted to country.

At first glance there would seem to be strong economic, social, cultural and ecological reasons to support a roo industry in WA - one factor is that roo numbers reach plague proportions in some parts of the Rangelands adding to the devastation of already exhausted grasslands. Another is that the regions are crying out for opportunities to develop diverse income streams via new industries, especially ones relevant to aboriginal people.

DECLINE of THE ROO INDUSTRY

But the roo industry has tanked across WA. Roo pet meat and skin/leather markets have hit rock bottom with there has been a  corresponding thinning out of the business ranks.  There is one remaining skin merchant in WA, south of Fremantle, no tanneries left and human consumption comes to us courtesy of South Australian outfit MACROMEATS.

Roo meat for pets has hit hard times- possibly due to changing tastes: there has been a move away from raw meat to meet the demand for more processed products. Much like human food you can now get grain free pellets for dogs and that expensive stuff sold by vets for those animals with touchy digestive systems.

 Last year a big Queensland-based pet food processor pulled out of Perth putting many roo shooters out of business. Of the 400 licenced shooters in WA, only about 20 of them are now able to support themselves in the trade and none are licenced to shoot for human consumption.

THE MARKET

Macromeats are doing a good job in our supermarkets with a consistent, well-presented product– they have just rebranded as K-Roo – a no brainer in the you-aren’t-really-eating-one-of-those-adorable-critters-that-hop-and-have-big-brown-eyes-are-you? stakes.

According to the general manager of Gamemeats for Coles, Australia, the market for roo meat is growing. Statistics are hard to get because the commercial playing field is so small that business confidentiality becomes an issue but this man was prepared to tell me that there has been a modest and steady increase in kangaroo sales over the last five years and that 75% of the market is occupied by the 20 to 30-year-old bracket.

THE SKIPPY PARADOX

This tells me that the Skippy Paradox – where the roo is seen as both the untouchable sacred emblem of Australia and as dog meat, is, if not dead, at least generational.This attitude is not the futureWhen I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, Mum fed our cats roo meat – but I don’t remember ever having entertained the idea that we could be eating the meat ourselves. The cultural overlay that has stopped so many generations from really seeing this land is at play here. We are still struggling to understand that Australia could have developed under systems vastly different from the European. The skippy paradox is the tip of an iceberg when it comes to re-visiting what is indigenous to this country.

 ROO as SUPERFOOD

Roo meat is rightly marketed as ‘lean meat’; but there is a much bigger and juicier story about the fats present in the meat. These are derived from omega 3 fatty acids and contain powerful anti-carcinogens and anti imflammatory agents known as Conjugated Linoleic Acids. CLAs are present in all pasture-fed ruminants, with much higher levels seen in animals grown on bio-diverse natural pasture than those fed on nutrient-poor agricultural land. CLA levels are five times higher in roo meat than lamb.

This powerful food-as-medicine message is a marketing tool that is currently completely underutilised in the marketing of roo meat. It is also an untapped story in the lamb market, where ‘saltbush fed’ lamb – a far superior tasting meat to farm lamb - struggles to break through to mainstream consciousness and markets.

Options for legally killing and selling animals is limited by the abattoirs on offer. Without a nearby abattoir, the glorious Rangeland product is sent down to the central market at Muchea (just north of Perth), herded in with other animals reared on poor agricultural pastures and sold with no distinction being made between the quality of the lifestyle of the animals. For this situation to change it is almost as if we need to go back to an earlier model where the local butcher in a town was also in charge of a small slaughterhouse and producers could start marketing their own meat.

In Geraldton, Midwest WA, I am pinning my hopes on Gearings – an enterprising family who have a number of butcher shops in the areas and are interested in opening an abattoir that would also have the capacity to deal with game. They have tried a few approaches, including buying the old Geraldton Meat Export abattoir on the eastern edge of town – but so far have been defeated by red tape and unrealistically high prices. This is a story that awaits more chapters.

ROO AS WILDFOOD

Roo is wild food, meaning that it has not been subject to any of the stresses visited upon livestock processed through conventional slaughterhouses. Compare the life and death of a roo to the life and death of domestic stock on a station.

The roo lives free and wild, and one day looks up and sees a bright light: Bang. He’s a Goner.  The domestic beast suffers many human- imposed indignities throughout its life, the last one being one most visible to the public, When their time is up, they are loaded onto a road-train for the long voyage from pasture to holding pen near an abattoir – up until recently, abattoir closures stretched these food miles to extraordinary distances.

I don’t love the idea of live export, but accept that if I want to eat meat raised in WA I can’t expect producers to live off the slim pickings of the domestic market – export deals are essential to keep our producers producing and the industry viable.

Recently the entrepreneurial family who run Yeeda and other stations in the northwest of WA joined forces with international funders to develop a new abattoir inland from Broome. This is supplying export and local markets with station beef and Yeeda meats has re-opened a shopfront in Geraldton. Now, instead of live animals being shipped via roadtrains to the GinGin slaughterhouse north east of Perth and then shipped back up north in plastic bags, the beef is sent directly from Yeeda abattoir to outlets in Geraldton and Perth.

ROO IS DELICIOUS

Roo is delicious, did I mention that? In two years at Edah I did more cooking than I have done in my whole life and both roo and lamb were a revelation.

We had a solar oven – a natty construction made in Joondalup by a bloke called Kevin – the Solar Kooka was used most sunny days and made the cooking of meat easy while making me look like a great chef.

My apex moment as a caterer involved a roo tail (fur off) put in whole and completely unadorned in a lidded pan in the oven. I took a picture of the result it was so lovely. Rich, oily, stringy, falling off the bone.  The dinner party fell on this meat like crows on a pie outside the Rottnest bakery.

Roo and lamb joints slow-cooked for hours were a highlight, as were the fillets we cooked rare. As our butchering techniques improved we graduated to chops and more sophisticated cuts. Roo foody innovations were led by Bob White, butcher and retired roo shooter who regularly visited Edah. We inherited Bob from the previous owner and all loved him. He knew everything there was to know about roos after years of solitary hours spent studying their movements at water points on station country.

ROO HABITS

Bob knew that roos don’t like stepping out in open fields of wavy grasses and wildflowers because they get uneasy when they can’t see their feet. And that they were shy to show themselves on full moon nights or if it was too windy when their ability to hear predators was affected.

He reckons that in dry weather roos can survive without water for up to five days – Roos eat less pasture and use 35% less water than their livestock equivalents; have breeding capacities that quickly adapt to drought or rain conditions and their pads do not damage the fragile soils of the arid zones

ROO SKINS

Roo shooters have told me that up until recently the big money was in roo skins, the leather is renowned for its superior thinness, flexibility and strength. Europe had an appetite for the leather to make soccer balls and shoes – currently only a very small market for the leather remains as inserts in the all-body protective gear worn in high-octane motor sports.

10 years ago skins were worth 8-12 dollars each and with a pet food industry utilising the carcass – roo shooters were make a living. What happened?  Anecdotally, Victoria and David Beckham happened – but that is a whole other story that I will have to tell in another podcast when I tackle the whole meat-is-murder issue that has had a strong influence on the roo industry.

 HARVESTING ROOS

Roos up this way are traditionally harvested by the lone shooter driving around station country in a Toyota landcruiser equipped with a spotlight, gunrest and rails for hanging the carcases.

Shooters start late, after 9pm and cruise the windmills. Fixed water points are surrounded by open country, and water allows a good chance of seeing a mob in the dry. When the shooter has a ute load he delivers them to his chiller, ideally parked up reasonably nearby. 360 roos fit in a sea container, approximately 6 tonnes. The roo is gutted in the field and mostly the upper torso is left in the paddock. This seems to be the way it is done, but I know from talking to people that the ribs and forearms are considered delicacies by some, so this practice might be one to challenge.

There is some question that the lone gunman method might not be delivering lower roo numbers and the decrease in grazing pressure that station folk would like. This is because the shooter takes out the big males in an effort to earn a wage. With the big males taken numbers can explode when there is no check on younger males mating with does.

There is also creeping into the industry an expressed ‘preference’ (inverted commas here) for males over females.  The Kangaroo Industry would not admit it, but I reckon this is the animal liberationist factor at play, creating unease throughout the industry. As we touched on earlier, the roo industry is vulnerable and very touchy when it comes to perceptions of animal welfare.  

Research is needed into the best way of despatching roos. Is there something to be learned from Aboriginal ways of dealing with unwanted roo numbers?

RED TAPE

When I look at the main challenges to the establishment of a roo industryin WA red tape deserves a paragraph or twoThe roo industry still operates under the control of the Federal and State Government Conservation and land management bodies - not under operations geared to be commercially viable like those that direct domestic animal industries.

The numbers of roos taken is strictly controlled by a licensing and tagging system run by the National Parks Authority (Department of Parks and Wildlife or DPAW) within each state with the training and licensing of roo shooters handled by a TAFE located in NSW and DPAW.

According to Tony Bennell from DPAW Perth; the numbers of red kangaroo (Macropus rufus, or malu in Wajarri language)* were estimated at I million across the Rangelands. Of the 150,000 available for slaughter via the Government run tagging system, only 54,000 were taken, presumably because the economic return was too low to justify the effort: abundance and sustainability are not problems for the industry (2016 numbers).

The red roo is the favoured eating meat out of 38 roo and wallaby species. Only four species can be legally culled.

And more red tape: abattoir regulations are particularly rigorous for game and the potential to combine roo and other domestic stock (eg on alternate days) which sounds feasible on paper appears impossible via the existing regulations.         Can the health department be talked into more roo-industry friendly attitudes without compromising health standards. Remote on-site plant regulations need work to help make the industry feasible?  Seasonal supply of roos. From an industry based in the Midwest, is there potential to source roos from other regions in the event of a shortage of supply?  Initially it might be necessary for experienced shooters to be hand-picked for their ability to kill humanely and supported to set up their vehicles and chillers/mobile refrigerated trucks to industry standard for Human Consumption - this involves a lot of stainless steel and handwashing potential etc.

Is there potential to use animals skinned in the field and working in with a mobile butchery? The idea of skinning the beast in the paddock and bypassing the need for an abattoir (the definition of an abattoir is that a beast arrives dead or alive with its skin on) is a seductive one. A big advantage of processing roo is that the main waste disposal (a huge cost for an abattoir) is effected in the paddock, but there are many regulatory health hurdles to leap to reach this goal.

HOW TO LOSE MONEY IN THE SKINGAME

I had some conversations with the old fellow and his son who are the last remaining skin merchants in WA in a factory south of Perth. It is a business that needs scale to survive – something like 20,000 skins must be gathered and de-furred and packed into a shipping containers to make the exercise worthwhile. HKHawkins & sons have long had a symbiotic relationship with a tannery in Queensland.

Old Mr Hawkins loved to chat and came out with story after story about the fortunes lost by people trying to make a living out of the roo. A good one involved a Chinese owned tannery and a Japanese shoe maker – I think it was Japanese. He described loss after loss with unabated good humour ‘oh yes, and then there was Ron So–and-so, now he dropped a bundle….’ I suppose I could have got the same sorts of stories if I sat down with abattoir owners – some businesses are just too moody for words.

So it seems that the Posh factor isn’t the only problem in the world of skins – it is just the latest and loudest one.

THE BAD NEWS KILO BY KILO

From Wayne, a petfood merchant in Medina, also south of Perth, I got the stats on roos, more discouraging news. Wayne broke down the numbers on the average goat carcass, there are 24kgs of mostly usable meat. By comparison the average roo weighs in at 16kgs and produces about 3kgs of highly desirable fillet with the remaining 7kgs selling for a lot less. When we spoke a year ago he was getting ready to offer his shooters 50c a kilo for their meat. It used to 90cents a kilo, so you can see things are crook in the industry.

Kangaroo is a cheap meat: $22 a kilo retail (for the most desirable 3kg of fillet) compared to up to $45 a kilo for a comparable grass-fed, organic beef product. Why the disparity in price? My feeling is that this is more of our customary cultural shortsightedness. The skippy paradox - too many non-indigenous people running the show.

The history lesson from Mr Hawkins the elder was the clincher: I concluded that anyone wanting to start a small domestic roo processing plant in WA would probably have to be nuts. So while it makes sense to eat roos on economic, social, environmental and human health grounds – it needs some wealthy, risk-taking visionaries – preferably with butchering skills and preowned butcher shop - plus with some serious legislative help from local and state governments eager to kickstart the industry - to make it happen. And celebrity chefs spearheading a comprehensive and widely directed educational campaign that will turn people’s attitudes to eating roos around.

Maybe one day.....I will always be willing to revive the Yalgoo roo processing plant idea for human consumption. Imagine the fun you could have with the name of the product! Goo-Roo is my current favourite.