Two schools of thought on quality of organic beef

HOW should quality be defined in organic beef? There are two schools of thought.

One school suggests that organic cattle should be graded along the same lines as conventional, using the EUROP system.

For non-farmer readers, this grid or grade system scores cattle carcass shape and muscle development from the top (E) to the bottom (P). Numbers 1 to 5 denote the degree of fat on the carcass, with 1 having the least and 5 the most. In conventional farming top price achieving animals are up at the U or (rarely) E levels, with a fat score of 1 or 2.

In organic farming in Ireland, a flat price is used, instead of this grade system. However, EUROP, or a modified version, is used in other EU countries for organic beef animals.

It could be argued that organic farming does not reward the highest achievers for producing, in conventional terms, better animals. According to Teagasc organic advisor James McDonnell, “In conventional, it’s all about quality. The flat price doesn’t do anything for the (organic) sector. Good quality cattle and good carcass with better overall cuts are not being rewarded.”

“A Belgian Blue has more fillets, round roast and so on. But it could be argued that, in organic, poor animals are overpaid for, and vice versa. The factories would also prefer quality, as they make more.”

He says, “When factories were paying flat, there were beef blockages in the conventional sector”. He believes the flat price may also be mitigating against finishers in organic. Because of this, top organic producers can sell into the conventional sector for the higher grade prices.

However, both the Good Herdsman and the Leitrim Co-op prefer to pay a flat rate. For John Brennan of the Leitrim Co-op, “We want to improve quality and confirmation, but this factory system isn’t the answer”. He points to a breed renowned for beef eating quality. “Take the Aberdeen Angus, that is often graded as an O. It has a natural genetic merit in its conformation, and for many consumers, the breed produces a superior meat. The grading system does not take organoleptic factors into account. It’s about efficiency, not quality of meat. I won’t accept anything but a flat rate.”

He says, “You need minimum of a 2 for fat cover, in Scotland, R4 is ideal for organic. They have a lot of work done there on the Angus, where they are fed mostly on grass and silage, and finish at 300 to 320 kg deadweight. Some oats and peas produced on the farm are also used as feed, really it’s a great system. Plus, they have managed to get PGI status for Scotch beef. If we had the conventional grading system in organic, it would penalise the native breeds.”

Level of grass feeding is another issue supporting this point of view. Native breeds are more suited to a grass-based diet. Research suggests increasing the grass content of the animal’s diet increases the levels of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), which is thought to help protect against cancer, diabetes and heart disease, without using external inputs such as imported oils to achieve this. Breeds that are more suited to the terrain and climate in Ireland can finish off grass and have tasty beef marbling.

“Increasingly, supermarket buyers, especially abroad, don’t want continental animals from Ireland,” says John Brennan. They want breeds traditionally associated with Ireland and Britain. We need to look at low input animals, animals that are carbon footprint friendly. There should be a good conversion of feed into meat, from silage and grass, with just a small amount of supplements.”

Research in Ireland by Professor Frank Monaghan and others has shown now stable isotope testing can clearly differentiate grass-fed beef from other meat, and organic from conventional.

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