Proof of sustainability in beef production may be important for trade post-Brexit

Ireland adopts grass-fed standard for beef

Australia is closely watching moves by other countries in adopting grass-fed meat production standards that include a sustainability component.

Australia is closely watching moves by other countries in adopting grass-fed meat production standards that include a sustainability component.

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Australia is closely watching Ireland's adoption of grass-fed standards for beef.

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It was about 10 years ago when Cattle Council of Australia (CCA) started to develop its ideas for a pasture-fed standard to underpin marketplace quality claims relating to grass-fed beef.

The Pasturefed Cattle Assurance System, or PCAS as it became known, commenced in 2014 and served the industry until individual processor systems were introduced to support the specific brands they were promoting into food service and retail globally.

Naturally enough, Australia was never going to be left alone to reap any rewards from this particular market niche - and the latest beef exporting competitor to make a play in this space is Ireland.

The Irish Food Board agency Bord Bia was established by an act of the Irish parliament (the Dil) on December 1, 1994.

It combined the former CBF (Coras Beostoic agus Feola/Irish Meat and Livestock Board) and the food promotion activities of An Bord Trachtala/Irish Trade Board.

Like its legislated counterparts in Australia, Bord Bia has now developed and rolled-out its own grass-fed standard for beef. But it is presumably oblivious to what has already occurred in the antipodes and has claimed it as a 'world first'.

Unlike the Australian model, which opened the way here for processors to do their own thing, the Irish model instead appears to limit the scope of their processors by tying-in the standard with the over-arching infrastructure of the Irish Sustainable Beef and Lamb Assurance Scheme (SBLAS), and having the standard approved by the Irish National Accreditation Board.

SBLAS is all about Ireland's commitment to 'green' farming practices.

Presumably convinced that it needed to demonstrate verifiable proof of its sustainability claims to global food buyers, Ireland replaced its existing beef and lamb quality assurance schemes in 2017 with the new scheme - embedded with environmental, social and economic principles of sustainability.

The Standard and its associated 'Grass Fed Verified' logo will allow processors to differentiate and promote qualifying product to those customers who are looking for the provenance and quality of beef derived from sustainable, grassfed farming systems.

Like Australia's Livestock Production Assurance (LPA) scheme, Ireland's SBLAS system is voluntary and here lies an interesting parallel.

In Australia, you need a National Vendor Declaration (NVD) if you want to sell cattle - and to make such a declaration you need to be accredited under LPA.

In Ireland, if the processor you are selling to wants to avail itself of Bord Bia's new grass-fed standard, the supplier will need to be accredited under SBLAS.

Both are examples of what might be called 'persuasive compliance'.

In Australia, LPA is concerned with traceability, animal health and welfare and general environmental issues -with an overarching focus on food safety and integrity.

This was also the case in Ireland, until farm assurance schemes were extended to include sustainability.

Now in Ireland, the audit process (which occurs every 18 months) has been expanded to check on greenhouse gas, biodiversity, water measures, energy efficiency, soil management and socio-economic factors.

Due to this increased data collection task, Bord Bia requests permission from the farmer to obtain data from other sources that have business-related information pertinent to the operation of the farm.

This includes the Department of Agriculture's Animal Identification and Movement database and the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, which holds individual figures on herd composition, performance and health - as well as sale and purchase weights. Additional data is also obtained from abattoirs.

While such a loss of business privacy may seem anathema to Australian producers, it needs to be remembered that Irish farmers may be quite used to giving up such data in exchange for very generous subsidies under the European Union's common agricultural policy.

Nevertheless, if Australia wants to get meat into Britain after Brexit - and into Europe more generally - we may need to get used to the idea, as Ireland has done, of demonstrating verifiable proof of sustainability in our production systems.

In the meantime, we will just have to accept that countries such as Ireland and New Zealand - with their lush green fields, clean air and plentiful rain - might have some natural advantage in appealing to consumer sentiment in the quest for the grass-fed meat dollar, Pound Sterling or Euro.

Weight showing up in southern cattle

The effect of the great seasonal conditions in southern states is really starting to show in the amount of weight on cattle coming through for sale.

Monday's Wagga market told the story, with more than 500 of the 706 head of yearling steers in the report in the 400 kilograms-plus weight range.

Heavy steers and bullocks are beginning to appear again and, of the 397 cows reported, only six head were below 520kg.

This was mirrored in a comment from a major multi-site processor, who said there are some numbers starting to point toward the kill in the south.

While not getting overrun at the moment, numbers are ticking along nevertheless.

Cow rates at Wagga gained further ground to top at 315c/kg and a healthy average of 308c/kg for the score fours.

Published grids for Wagga and Naracoorte were revised up on Friday, bringing four-tooth ox to 635c/kg and heavy cows to 580c/kg.

In southern Queensland, one of the majors adjusted rates up last week - bringing ox into a range of 610-655c/kg and cows to 555-585c/kg.

This was reflected in Tuesday's Warwick sale, where cows spiked up to 317c/kg and averaged 11c/kg better at 307c/kg.

Meanwhile, in the US, imported beef prices continued to lose ground following a sharp decline in domestic lean beef values.

Analyst Steiner Consulting noted a US$10/cwt drop in the latter and US$5 fall in imported 90 CL blended cow (FOB US East Coast).

With grilling demand and retail sales of the summer months now falling away, the concern for lean beef values will be the extent to which food service holds-up in the colder months when outdoor dining is impractical.

In that regard, latest consumer research is not encouraging - with a high proportion of respondents indicating they will avoid indoor restaurant dining until it is safer.

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