Will a grass-fed brand save Irish beef? Bord Bia is working to establish a protected geographical indicator (PGI) for grass-fed beef to help sell move more Irish product on the premium end of the market.
eographical indicators already exist for Irish produce such as Connemara hill lamb, the Waterford blaa and Comber early potatoes.
A geographical indicator is a sign used on goods that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that place of origin.
The proposals by Bord Bia would see 75pc of Irish beef included in the grass-fed status.
Close to 90pc of the country’s beef is exported, with the UK market taking 50pc of produce – a worry for exporters and beef farmers, with Brexit looming.
A further cause for concern is the fact that a significant proportion of the beef going into the UK does not end up on a supermarket shelf, where it could be promoted to consumers under an Irish flag, but ends up in food-service and restaurants, where its country of origin is not visible.
In the UK, British beef, understandably, controls a premium price due to the success of ‘buy British’ campaigns.
In fact, 81pc of beef sold in the UK is under the British logo. Supermarkets such as Aldi, Budgens, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons and Waitrose only stock British beef.
Now, Ireland is attempting to create a branded Irish beef offering, to get our product out of the commodity rut and into the baskets and onto the dinner tables of consumers across Europe.
But will consumers pay a premium, and for what exactly?
Research undertaken in 2018 for Bord Bia showed that grass-fed has “the potential to be either equally or more influential than GMO-free” among consumers surveyed in five key export markets.
The research, which involved consumers, retailers and those involved in the food service sector, was primarily focused on purchasing decisions and understanding of GMO in dairy and meat.
“While the consensus seems to indicate Ireland has a stronger opportunity around grass-fed, that is really dictated by current consumer sentiment,” the research noted.
According to the research, price sensitivity remains a core concern across all consumers surveyed, with price noted as one of the key influencers when purchasing meat and dairy.
The research found that 71pc of respondents stated that price would make them much more likely or more likely to purchase a meat product. It also found there are increasing trends towards clean living, and animal welfare.
The research found that consumers in Germany, the US and UAE showed a preference for grass-fed over GMO-free food, with 48pc saying grass-fed is important to them. The research also found that 61pc said they are willing to pay more for grass-fed produce, compared to 56pc for GMO-free.
Grass-fed is an increasing trend on restaurant menus, while “there is strong evidence that Ireland is seen internationally as a country that grass feeds animals year-round”.
However, the research also states that Ireland is primarily associated with dairy products from grass-fed cows rather than grass-fed beef.
So what exactly is grass-fed?
The definition of grass-fed beef, though, is unclear. According to Bord Bia’s research, the most commonly held belief about grass-fed beef is that the animal grazes on 100pc grass, with a quarter of consumers thinking that the animal has been grazing outdoors 365 days a year.
That said, consumers believe grass-fed is healthier, more natural and more nutritious, and the research found 63pc of consumers said they would be willing to pay more for grass-fed meat.
That number went up to 81pc in China, but was down to 52pc of consumers surveyed in the US.
Of the countries associated with grass-fed beef, Ireland ranked high, with consumers viewing Ireland as a country with a lot of land for grazing.
What beef will be included?
The disagreements around which beef production systems will qualify as ‘grass-fed’ have been well documented.
ICMSA president Pat McCormack says the Irish beef sector has the opportunity to get PGI status on over 70pc of the beef produced.
However, the IFA has raised issues with the proposals, including the exclusion of young bulls from eligibility and the confusion over excluding the first nine months of age.
ICSA maintains that a suckler-based application is the only realistic option and that any proposal that excludes suckler young bulls and includes 10-year-old dairy cows is unworkable.
There have also been questions raised over who would own the rights to the brand and who would ultimately benefit from any premium.
Will consumers pay a premium?
According to the Bord Bia research, there is a greater willingness to pay more for grass-fed beef than there is for GMO-free.
However, time and again research shows that what consumers say they will do and what they actually do are very different.
The UK’s Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) said its research shows that there is a small proportion of people in every country who think what their local farmers do is the best in the world and that their beef is better quality.
Recent research by the National Dairy Council mirrored this, finding that nearly all (88pc) of consumers believe that Irish dairy is superior to dairy produced elsewhere in the world.
However, the same research found that price, nutritional value and healthiness are the top three issues for Irish consumers when purchasing foods.
Other research by the AHDB on the consumer decision-making process showed that “lots of people say that country of origin is really important, but when they get into the store, the importance of country of origin drops. Things like price and quality then come to the fore.”
What an Irish grass-fed beef brand would look like in reality remains to be seen, as does whether or not consumers are prepared to pay a premium for it.
Whether any premium ends up in beef farmers’ pockets will, no doubt, determine the success or failure of the brand in Irish farmers’ eyes.