12 January 1996

Blonde ambition for quality beef

French beef producers are renowned for thinking beyond the farm gate. In the third of a series of articles,

Rebecca Austin reports on how Charolais and Blonde dAquitaine breeders face the demands of their respective markets

TWELVE percent of French consumers are prepared to pay more for their beef, provided its quality can be guaranteed.

This is the result of a survey carried out two years ago by the English equivalent of market researchers, Gallup.

The Blonde dAquitaine breeders have reacted by taking one of its existing products, suckler cow beef, and guaranteeing it under the label "Boeuf Blonde DAquitaine".

The quality assurance scheme markets its suckler cow beef through 100 butchers and is aimed at the top end of the market. It has been a success for three years ago only 30 butchers were involved. Numbers increased to 60 last year and the meat is predicted to reach 200 shops by 1997.

Paris boasts 80% of total trade. Any butcher involved can only sell beef which has been provided by the scheme, so consistency of supply is vital. At present 200kg of Boeuf Blonde DAquitaine is sold each week throughout France.

There are 500 farmers from the lAgenais region, east of Bordeaux in south-west France, involved in the scheme. Between them they breed from 2000 pure Blonde dAquitaine cows. Of these 70% are eligible for marketing through the scheme when slaughtered between 28 months old and nine years. Research has proven this is the optimum age range for meat eating quality.

As with quality assurance schemes in UK, there are management guidelines. Only those cows which have a pedigree certificate are eligible, although they need not necessarily be recorded in the breed herd book.

Traceability is the most important criteria. It is controlled via a national identification number, which follows the animal from birth to slaughter, as well as a tattooed number which can be found in 30,000 Blonde dAquitaine cows in France.

Their feed must never contain antibiotics, growth hormones, or urea as a source of protein. Each cow must also be allowed at least 6sq m (66sq ft) at housing, ad lib bedding and fresh water. Vet treatment must also be recorded.

When stock is handled and transported, electric probes are prohibited. At the abattoir carcass cooling time must not exceed 24 hours and all meat should hang for two weeks. Once killed the carcass will be stamped with the cows name, its origin, weight and date of slaughter to ensure traceability.

These guidelines are checked by an independent organisation, as well as government officials.

Unlike the UK schemes, there is no membership fee. All administrative costs are provided by the premium achieved for the beef. Suckler cow beef, which is about 51p/kg dearer than young bull beef, would normally sell for 358p/kg. There is a 64p/kg premium available for cow beef sold under the label. In comparison dairy cull cow beef is only worth 192p/kg.

The average carcass weight is 420kg and most grade U2 or 3.

They kill out at 60% under the French system, compared to 50% for dairy cows.

"We must be able to provide a guarantee in a scheme such as this, because it offers an official seal of quality," says Francois Pallavidino, director of Boeuf Blond DAquitaine. "But the guarantee is not just a trademark, it also ensures the product is controlled at every level."

Plans for a similar scheme for young bull beef are now under way.

Francois Pallavidino, director of the French quality assurance scheme, Boeuf Blonde dAquitaine.