The news that the US beef market is to open its doors to Irish beef has been widely discussed in the last week. It is news that is also accompanied by the use of the words ‘Irish’, ‘premium’ and ‘grass-fed’. Largely, but with reservations, it is seen as really good news for the Irish beef farmer; not least in the light of a difficult 2014.

The US with its large Irish-origin population should be market with real potential for Irish beef. It is also currently experiencing some of the most buoyant beef prices in its history; although that is a fact that will have not gone unnoticed by other beef producers around the World. This may not last forever so going premium is a logical step for Irish beef producers; not least when the Irish beef producer is of a somewhat smaller scale than most US beef producers or Ireland’s international competitors. Does, however, grass-fed offer the way to that premium?

One could be forgiven for thinking that so often does one hear about Ireland’s grass-fed livestock systems that they do offer some form of unique selling point. In reality it is far from the case. True the seasonal, spring-milk model that it shares to a degree with New Zealand is different. With beef it is not so clear. Yes, a great deal of beef around the world is grain-fed from beef-lots but much is fed and finished on a combination of grass and forages supplemented by cereals, corn and proteins. But just how much is grass/forage-fed and finished?

In the excitement surrounding the opening of the US market, too few people have stood back and asked just what is grass-fed beef and will being grass-fed mean access to premium-priced US markets. Even fewer seem to have actually asked the question as to whether Irish beef will actually be considered as being grass-fed. The assumption appears to be that the US market is just sitting their awaiting the first shipments of premium, grass-fed beef.

The reality is, however, that ‘grass-fed’ is already in the US market and doing rather well. Indeed, it has not gone unnoticed in Ireland that it is a market segment that is considered premium and growing rapidly. Also flagged up is that the segment is about beef reared without the use of growth hormones. Less is made of it being GM-free although, as one will see, the designation of grass-fed in the US pretty well guarantees that the cattle are reared on a GM-free diet [also there is now a new USDA non-GMO project that is approving designated non-GMO beef]. In fact, it is quiet feasible for Irish beef to be grass-fed, hormone-free and, with a little effort, GM free. So why is the author not quite so excited as others about the prospects for Irish beef in the premium US markets?

When one is enthralled with lush green, rain-fed Irish pastures it is easy to over-look that cattle are also reared on far more extensive rangeland pastures. They may grow more slowly and in more arid conditions but they will, in due time, produce grass-fed and grass-finished beef. This, one can easily forget, is the traditional way beef was raised in the American West. For some, the extensive rearing of beef on biodiverse pasture may also be the way beef should be reared. It may be a ‘heritage’ product. And it may be what grass-fed Irish beef will compete with.

One should also be aware that ‘grass-fed’ in the USA is something more than a marketing tag. It is something that the USDA and the American Grassfed Association take rather seriously as per the USDA press release below.

“WASHINGTON, Oct. 15, 2007 — The U.S. Department of Agriculture today issued a voluntary standard for grass (forage) fed marketing claims. The standard… is titled the U.S. Standard for Livestock and Meat Marketing Claim, Grass (Forage) Fed Claim for Ruminant Livestock and the Meat Products Derived from Such Livestock.

The grass fed standard states that grass and/or forage shall be the feed source consumed for the lifetime of the ruminant animal, with the exception of milk consumed prior to weaning. The diet shall be derived solely from forage and animals cannot be fed grain or grain by-products and must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season…. [The rationale behind the standards introduction being that] Increasingly, livestock and meat producers are using production or processing claims to distinguish their products in the marketplace. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service [AMS], through its voluntary certification and audit programs, verifies the accuracy of these claims. The proposed standard will establish the minimum requirements for those producers who choose to operate a USDA-verified program involving a grass (forage) fed claim”.

And from the American Grassfed Association’s website their definition of “What is grassfed?

The American Grassfed Association defines grassfed products from ruminants, including cattle, bison, goats and sheep, as those food products from animals that have eaten nothing but their mother’s milk and fresh grass or grass-type hay from birth to harvest – all their lives. They are also raised with no confinement and no antibiotics or hormones, and must be born and raised in the U.S….. The USDA defines grassfed as ruminant animals fed solely on grass and forage from weaning to harvest with no confinement during the growing season. AGA has developed a certification program and our own set of stringent grassfed standards”.

Having looked at the latter one would say that it is a standard that includes a high degree of common sense – it is aimed at making it a workable standard across the many varied climate zones of the US. As with organic it comes with an extensive set of rules and regulations and it has legally-protected logos and trademarks. The rules relate to grazing practices, grass and forage usage and specific regulatory controls over dietary supplementation.

More recently [in September 2014], the USDA went further with the Standard. To quote; “The USDA Grass Fed Program for Small and Very Small (SVS) Producers was designed as a verification tool for small and very small producers to certify that animals meet the requirements of the AMS Grass (Forage) Fed Marketing Claim Standard. For this program, USDA is targeting producers that market 49 cattle or less each year…. As part of USDA-wide efforts to create more opportunities for small-scale livestock producers, AMS designed a less costly application process for SVS producers, using the USDA Certified Grass-Fed claim as its first example”. Hence, the program will enable many more small beef producers to market their beef as USDA certified grassfed beef.

One can, therefore, be pretty confident that the AGA or the many [and expanding] number of US grassfed beef producers [or the USDA for that matter] are going to be too willing to accept a loose Irish definition of ‘grass-fed’ to be bandied about the US beef market. Having said that, the AGA website also states:

“Question: How can I be certain the product is truly grassfed? Answer: The best way to ensure that the product is truly grassfed is to look for the AGA logo on the label. Only producers who meet our strict standards can achieve certification. Current USDA labelling for grassfed can be very misleading. AGA standards and seals assure you that the product you are buying commits to the following: that the animals can only be fed grass and forage, can never be confined, never receive antibiotics or hormones, and must be born and raised in the U.S”.

Hence, one can assume that there is room to use the term ‘Irish grass-fed’ in the US beef market. One can also assume that it will be challenged in the marketplace by the AGA and others. Will Irish exporters then be able to support their use of the term ‘grass-fed’ in a way that will be accepted and recognised by the US beef consumer? It needs to be able to do so and it is a further reason why the author stresses that the Irish farming industry needs to clearly define its products and their origins and to market them in a crystal clear and holistic fashion.

Over the last few months there has become a constant theme to my writings. It is that Ireland has to start to develop farming systems and routes to market that can produce, deliver and sell premium products with origins that are transparent, documented and designated. It is the same with beef to the USA. Ireland can produce high-quality beef that is predominantly grass-fed and it will be on-farm and in-factory quality-assured, but will that be enough to reach above the 60-70% quality mark within the market place? Yes, some can be from the Aberdeen Angus or Hereford schemes that guarantee that the beef is sired by a bull from those breeds; but neither will be a unique selling point in a US market where both breeds are very well known.

To really reach the upper echelons of the US market [and other international markets for that matter] will need products with unique selling points and that is possible, but it will not be done without working out what they are and how they fit into the US beef market. In the meantime we need to be careful not to over-play the grass-fed card in a market which already has its own well-defined ideas of just what are ‘grass-fed’ livestock products, beef included.

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