WHAT'S YOUR BEEF?

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The Independent Culture
COW: Meat from the dairy herd, from cows killed from the age of five and upwards, after they have finished their milking lives. Firm meat, not much fat. Rear quarters were mostly exported, especially to France (it made up the larger part of the 98,000 tons of beef we exported to them). Some cow has been used to make lean supermarket mince over the years. It was widely used in burgers, pies, sausages. Fifty per cent of UK dairy herds have had cases of BSE, though 25 per cent numbered one case only. Trade in cow meat has now been banned.

BULLS: Uncastrated male animals, usually slaughtered at 14-20 months. (The BSE agent, a protein called a prion, has not completed its incubation period by this time, and no cases of BSE are found in animals as young as this).

STEERS: Castrated males, slaughtered at 18-26 months.

HEIFERS: Females, those not required for breeding, grown to 18-26 months. Cases of BSE have been found in only 15 per cent of non-dairy herds. It sounds even better if you put it the other way round, 85 per cent of herds have never had a case of BSE.

SUCKLER HERDS: Milk-fed by their mothers until they can be turned out to grass. They do not leave the farm. They will spend one winter indoors, fed on silage (dry grass), vegetables, grains, plus necessary minerals. This is the practice followed on most Scottish farms, especially with respect to the Aberdeen Angus, Highland and Shorthorn breeds (suckler herds account for 68 per cent of their beef). Animals are accountable, their history being recorded. Very few cases of BSE, and these have been traced to stock brought in from dairy farms.

BARLEY BEEF: The process of breeding for dairy herds (Friesians mostly, since they supply 80 per cent of our milk) produces a large proportion of young males. These are either exported for veal (and we know about them, see below) or may be bred intensively, and fed fairly cheaply on crushed barley, boosted by concentrates (the nature of which will not be declared on the label). Legally, these concentrates can contain dried blood flavoured with chocolate, ground-up fish meal, DPM - yes, dried poultry manure which includes feathers, litter and dead carcasses. Pass the sick bag.

TRADITIONAL, HERITAGE, SPECIALITY: Supermarkets have created these names for ranges of premium beef. "Tradition" may refer to the practice, begun in the 1960s, of importing fast-growing, large-carcased continental breeds - Limousins, Charolais, Belgian Blue, Simmenthal - which suit current health dicta, having a greater lean-to-fat ratio than the old traditional breeds - Hereford, Welsh Black, Angus and similar types.

These breeds also suit the bulk production required by supermarkets. Forty per cent of them are produced in suckler herds, and 60 per cent are not, being put on an intensive diet of dried milk, wheat, barley and protein. You have no way of knowing, except you trust your supermarket to charge you more for the better product.

ORGANIC BEEF: Animals may be from many of the breeds above, but will feed on grassland never treated with chemicals, and their silage and grain feeds will be be organic too. The amount of feed allowed from barley is limited. Medicines and drugs are not used routinely. A few cases of BSE did appear in herds, though in each case they were traced to animals brought in from dairy herds.

VEAL: Lovely meat, veal, but don't say that too loud. Is there anyone who doesn't know we send our veal calves to Holland to be locked in crates, deprived of movement and light, fed exclusively on reconstituted dried milk, killed after 16-20 weeks? This practice is banned in Britain, and to our credit we choose to eat very little veal that is produced using these intensive methods. But there are kinder ways to rear calves for meat. Sainsbury's sells humanely reared British veal, whose flesh is slightly pinker. The tastiest veal is French; there it is sold with a Label Rouger - veau sous la mere, having fed on its mother's milk and enjoyed an outdoor life (in summer) or in large barns in the winter.

Veal contributes to some really fine recipes. In Britain, Victorians prized roast veal for Sunday lunch; the French have their creamy blanquette de veau; the Italians their fine stew of Osso Buco and a remarkable cold dish, Vitello Tonnato, boned leg of veal with a creamy mayonnaise of tuna and capers. As for the offal, none is better than veal kidney and veal liver. Veal bones, every chef will tell you, make the best, delicate flavoured gelatinous stock to use in classic sauces.

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