Where's the beef?

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The Independent Culture
The beef crisis has been seen as an economic and political, and sometimes ethical, problem. But the heart of the problem surely lies in how our beef is raised, cut, marketed, priced and consumed.

Of course, as with a losing football team, one can blame the manager rather than the quality of the players. And one can make beef into a political problem, as though our continental neighbours were being simply malicious in banning our beef, rather than being manipulated by public fear. Governments are as bad as individuals when it comes to risk assessment or informed debate on public health, so naturally the issue spills over from fact to fantasy.

The economic argument is more serious. The present crisis in our beef is likely to cost 0.5 to 1 per cent of gross domestic product, which translates into some 300,000 additional persons unemployed. But this is only one factor in a long-term shift in eating habits the effects of which are just as damaging economically. That shift - which includes a move away from meat in general and within meat from red meat to white - has not occurred by chance. It has been fed by nutritional advice, much of it Government-sponsored. The decrease in meat consumption is especially marked in those born after 1961, and among the better educated.

Ethical and "animal rights" considerations (as in the attack on veal) have certainly played their part in this overall decline. Will it ever be reversed? The answer has to take account of differences in national diets (England, France and Italy consume, for instance, two-and-a-half times more beef than the other European countries). The continental nations, whose economic stake in meat is as great as ours, have taken care to shore up their meat industries.

The mechanics of the market place an additional strain on any analysis. Why, for instance, if there is currently a beef glut, have prices not fallen? (Indeed, in France, they have risen.) The answer, says Jean Cavailhes of the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, is that "apart from a tiny fraction of quality products [beef] remains an undifferentiated, heterogeneous, unguaranteed and, furthermore, expensive product".

He points to two underlying problems. First, most industries and services differentiate between their products by origin, and agriculture has tended to do the same: the AOC denominations for wine, the identification of the origins of cheese, vinegar, wheat, potatoes, simply reflect the fact that the informed consumer wants to know where what he buys comes from, how it is raised, how prepared for the market. Not so - despite the appellation "Scotch beef" (and one might ask, which Scotch beef?) for beef. And is it not anomalous that while professionals classify grades of beef (from prizewinning cattle to the American gradings, 'prime', 'choice' and ungraded), they make no effort to market their savoir-faire to the consumer?

The second is identification by quality. Most consumers know the difference between battery farming and natural farming. The poultry industry (while continuing to produce low-quality goods) led the way by producing and marketing quality fowls. In France, a quarter of all poultry is organically fed, without water added, and selected for quality. In beef, on the Continent (though not in the UK) this market accounts for barely three to five per cent. Of course, there is a distinction between prime steaks, and beef for boiling. But there is also quality beef, of which we are traditionally one of the foremost purveyors: beef grown on rich pasture, animals that are suckled by their mothers, not to mention breeds (Charolais, Hereford) that vary in the quality of their meat. And the price differential of prime beef to the consumer is far smaller than for, say, organically grown vegetables - about 10 per cent, as against double the price for "organic" bread or lettuce.

There is, therefore, every argument for developing proper branding, identification, production and marketing of top quality meat - especially beef. The decline in consumption may well continue, but let us stop bitching about Brussels: a review of our priorities is long overdue