HAS ‘GRASS-FED’ GONE BEYOND ITS ‘BEST BEFORE’ DATE?

A couple of years ago I wrote a post about ‘grass-fed the American way’; or more specifically about how ‘grass-fed’ is defined by the USDA and American Grass-fed Association {AGA}. The term ‘grass-fed’ has, in the USA, already been specifically defined. This did not, however, stop a great deal of talk this side of the Atlantic about how Ireland was going to sell a vast tonnage of ‘grass-fed’ beef into a newly opening US market. It was as if the definition in use in the USA did not matter.

Now it appears that ‘grass-fed’ is a label that is on the up in the USA. AGA is not alone in having established a grass-fed label. These labels [as with the USDA definition] come with protocols and standards [something that appears to be absent when it comes to the sales-promotional use of ‘grass-fed’ in Ireland]. Should one expect, at some point in time, that the organisations promoting grass-fed brands will defend their intellectual property through any legal avenues open to them? When/if it happens will the days of ‘grass-fed’ being easy-to-band-about sales patter be over? Is it realistic to suggest that its use as such for beef, lamb and dairy products may already be nearing its ‘best before’ or even its ‘use-by’ date?

And one should not consider that these developments are peculiar to the USA. ‘Grass-fed’ as in ‘pasture-fed’ has already been defined in the UK. It is interesting that in the UK they have already chosen to use an alternative to ‘grass-fed. Over use and the rigour associated with the term ‘grass-fed’ may be a reason for using the alternative ‘pasture-fed’ term. If so, it was a wise choice. If one is going to develop the standards and protocols behind a designated-origin, proven-provenance label, why start out by using a term that is already being widely used and one that is not defined by specific farm-husbandry practices encapsulated within a designated-origin scheme.

Creating ‘grass-fed’ products is not only happening in the USA and the UK as one hears of initiatives in, for example, Australia and New Zealand. One should also expect them to happen in countries that are renown for beef and have a history of grazing extensive grasslands. Amongst these one may find the former communist countries of Eastern Europe [and some may be well placed to take advantage of premium markets in countries like Germany (not least because they may utilize German investment)]. The author well knows the grasslands of Transylvania [God’s own country when it comes to cattle] and they have a history of being farmed by ethnic Germans and Hungarians and supplying the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its armies with horses and cattle. And then one reads about 135,000 suckler cows in one single operation in Russia.

Suckler cows and Aberdeen Angus may be common to many of these ‘grass-fed systems. Of course, one can argue that many of these locations do not have Ireland’s long grass-growing seasons but then again they will have scale in their favour [and often much lower land costs]. Locations like Transylvania are also where lucerne/alfalfa and other legumes thrive. Just how does the economics add up when these can provide low-cost winter forages? The numbers are somewhat different when the forage-based system is not built upon ryegrass and nitrogen fertilizers. Does Ireland really have that great a cost advantage or, for that matter, lower per unit climate-change-linked emissions? The whole grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed issue is a rapidly evolving one and it is not one that can be addressed by simplistically attaching the term ‘grass-fed’ to your products.

So what Is Ireland up to? Is it now running around the globe trying to open ‘premium’ markets for its ‘grass-fed’ beef? Is it ignoring what others are doing and hoping that it will be able to convince the consumer that its more generic approach will suffice; that it is grass-fed simply because we say so? Is this just another sales-team approach that says that we can sell it because it is Irish? Is it all about what the ‘marketing boys’ say, regardless of whether the product stacks up when scrutinized by an issues-aware, day one say it, intelligent consumer; albeit that they are the ones who generally inhabit the upper tiers of the food markets? If so, it is not a sustainable approach.

Hence the very real question, what does ‘grass-fed’ mean when it comes to products from Ireland? Is there a clear definition of what is ‘grass-fed’? Is it that a minimum of 51% of the animal’s lifetime diet must come from grass [including grass-based forages]? And just what is meant by ‘grass’? Is it from ryegrass swards that are fed with the country’s 1.5 million tonnes of imported nitrogen fertilisers? Or is it from more diverse swards that also contain legumes? Or is it from more extensive biodiverse grasslands? The consumer might wish to know.

And what about the/any non-grass based part of the animal’s diet. Of concern is for the issues-aware consume is GM-feeds but Ireland imports hundreds of thousands of tonnes of soymeal from Argentina. The GM issue may not be of concern to Ireland’s ‘science’-focused establishment but it is of concern to many premium-paying consumers [as exemplified by Waitrose’s choice to only sell products from animals fed on a GM-free diet]. One can also add in issues like whether the soya was grown on land that was originally rain forest or Pampas grasslands or whether the palm kernel extract from certified-as-sustainable plantations. Both have climate-change emissions ratifications that consumers are and will become increasingly aware of. And to repeat oneself, the consumer is in charge and the future is not about ignoring the consumer.

Meanwhile others are developing the products that the premium markets want. The French with their multi-level, designated-origin schemes have been doing so for years. Others are cottoning on. Ireland is not because to do so means first changing the systems from the farm up. These schemes must be first about the husbandry employed on farm. They are then about operating supply-chain partnerships and ensuring that the routes to market are genuine partnerships that return a fair price to the farmer to reward the husbandry skills employed. Does that sound like something that Ireland’s often antagonistic [when it comes to relationships] routes to market can deliver?

The very industrial-scale, centralized nature of the routes to market may also count against Ireland when it comes to delivering to the top end of the markets; not least when some consumers see ‘local’ as an increasingly important consideration [local in terms of animal slaughter is also an animal welfare issue and, some would say an eating-quality (less stress) issue]. Low cost, centralized processing may deliver cost advantages [that may or may not benefit the farmer] but what role does it have when it comes to linking the premium-product producing farmer to the premium-paying consumer? Is it inhibiting the income-earning potential of most Irish farmers; be they supplying meat or milk or grains? It is a result of years of agri-food strategy preparation that has been dominated by the needs of the processor/exporters and not the farming or rural communities. There is, sadly, no sign of this changing. And in allowing this to happen, Ireland’s vaunted farmer representation has failed its membership. It is a failure that is going to be difficult to rectify.

To return to the original premise of the post; is ‘grass-fed’ a term that has reached its ‘best before’ date? For an agri-food industry that liberally uses ‘grass-fed’ it must be a shocking idea. Setting aside the thought that it is in danger of being over-used for sales promotion, [I choose not to use the word marketing because ‘marketing’ in its purist’s form means first using market research to define the product, pre-production], one is asking if the term ‘grass-fed’ is, from an evolving farming systems perspective, already dated? It may well be.

Long term one cannot see Ireland’s ‘produce-it-and-then-shift-it’ approach [where labelling is a part of the ‘shift it’ activity and not the ‘produce it’ activity (it is sales and not marketing-led; i.e. supply-driven)] delivering for farmers via improved farm incomes? It may continue to deliver for the post-farm-gate, processing sector but, as recent months have suggested, that sector is well able to protect its own supply-chain margins through market downturns. Just how well have they passed on the pain of low market prices to their farmer-suppliers?

As said earlier, the World is moving on. ‘Grass-fed’, as per the USDA, is gaining a stronger foothold in the USA [often seen as a target market for Irish ‘grass-fed’ products]. What will premium beef become in the USA, marbling and eating qualities aside? Will it be about cattle reared using traditional ranching and rangeland management methods? Will it be about returning land to its biodiverse former self? Will it be about returning carbon to soils through using, for example, mob-grazing? In an era where cattle are often considered as a major cause of climate change, will it be about showing how cattle farming can sequester carbon and be, at worst, carbon neutral? Will raising beef be about being in tune with nature and with the demands of those consumers who do understand that beef is a complex product that encompasses many characteristics and issues? This is all a far cry from rearing cattle on nitrogen-fed, non-biodiverse, grasslands.

Moving on from the USA, Tasmania is developing a label that promotes the sale of cattle that are totally free range and are certified hormone, antibiotic and GMO free. And then there is the premium beef range from New Zealand that specifies that its cattle are Black Angus and that they are raised free range on New Zealand’s pastures.  Its beef is “grass fed” and that means 100% grass fed and grass finished. The cattle are 100% pastured as required under USDA grass-fed rules.

The French go further and have done so for years. Their upper-tier products specify the production location, the breed, the feeds used, minimum and maximum slaughter ages and the use of local slaughter only. In some cases, like with the premium Charolais label, the rules specify the specific pastures [designated because of their biodiverse nature] upon which the cattle can be finished. It is all about the ‘terroir’. It is about ensuring that the consumer knows exactly how the product is produced and from where. Interestingly. it is also about limiting production volumes to ensure that the producer retains some control and that volume limits create scarcity to maintain a price premium. It is about premiumization of the farm-gate price and farm incomes.

The underlying message here is that premium markets are far more sophisticated than appears to be appreciated in Ireland. Increasingly they are about having the transparency that allows the consumer to understand and appreciate how the product is produced on-farm. Yes, it often includes transparency about the processing activity but the premium-paying, issues-aware consumer wants to know more about how the ‘raw material’ is produced down on the farm. And this goes well beyond form-filling quality assurance schemes, it is about the farming systems themselves and ensuring that they and the products they produce meet the demands of the consumer. Adding a label at the its-already-produced, ‘shift-it’ stage is not going to cut it going forwards. Well not if the expectation is to access the real premium markets. And they are the ones that the small-scale, volume-constrained, Irish farmer needs to be suppling if farm incomes are ever going to move towards that key target of Origin Green, to achieve sustainability all along the Supply Chain.

So just what is Ireland doing? Is it running around the World believing that its concept of what is ‘grass-fed’ will allow it to access the top end of the market? If it is, is this in the full recognition that this will deliver better incomes for the farmer? Or is it still largely about shifting commodities? Have the responsible parties yet grasped the idea that it is about developing long-term supply-chains for unique-to-Ireland, designated-origin products? Or is there still the old problem, that Irish farming is supply-driven and not market-led? Is it still commodity-minded and not product-orientated?

The current approach to using the term ‘grass-fed’ is both supply-driven and commodity minded; it is about producing the beef in the same old way and then adding the label later. It is still the ‘produce it / shift it’ model. It is not an approach that will work with sophisticated, premium-paying consumers and it is not one that will open-up premium markets for the long-term as there will simply be too much competition around that will be equipped with the real McCoy; designated-origin products with a complete story and a transparent history to support its grass-fed, pasture-fed, forage-fed [insert your term of choice here] claims. Aiming to sell products using only a broadly generic ‘grass-fed’ label; albeit that the grass is grown in Ireland, will not be where it is at.

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