By Robert Harris

PRIME cattle prices are being dragged down as supermarkets and abattoirs concentrate on leanness rather than taste and tenderness, says the National Beef Association.

Evidence from studies abroad, including Australia and New Zealand, suggests intramuscular fat improves flavour and tenderness, says Pauline Adams, the associations consumer spokeswoman.

A well-handled carcass, muscled to R conformation standards with a 4H finish and conditioned properly will eat well, she says. “But too many multiples use fat class 3 as their base, sell it too soon after slaughter and wonder why customers complain about dry beef and poor eating quality.”

The NBA highlights the example set by Scotch Premier Meat, which supplies butchers shops and restaurants. It is already paying a 4p/kg premium for 4L or 4H carcasses over fat class 3.

But Mike Owen, meat technical unit manager at the Meat and Livestock Commission, says there is little evidence that moving from a 3 to 4H fat class affects eating quality. “It depends on how you treat the product. People assume supermarkets do not hang beef. But some specifications demand 28 days.”

Leaner cuts are still of the highest quality, says a spokesman for the British Retailers Consortium. “Demand is customer-driven and reflects a lifestyle change which has been pushed at government level.”

The NBA also wants abattoirs to work with farmers to establish whether other factors – including breeding, feeding and handling – could affect meat quality. “Farmers would welcome feedback,” says Mrs Adams.

Ironically, a shortage of top-quality beasts around the country is helping to maintain finished cattle prices at pre-Christmas levels.

“Better sorts of cattle have disappeared,” says David Lock, market director for Premier Livestock Auctions at Frome. “Some producers have been short of feed, so there is a shortage of best butchers animals.” Better types have been fetching over £1/kg.

Cattle at Frome market Buyers from across the UK attended Frome market for the winter store sale. Over 600 stores were sold, and trade jumped by an average of £50/head, says auctioneer David Lock. A pen of light Aberdeen-Angus steers fetched 144p/kg, while standard green-ticketed Continentals made 100-110p/kg
The market average for fat cattle in England was just under 90p/kg last week, according to the MLC, almost 15p up on October levels and just 1.5p/kg down on the year.

The trade is uncertain whether these prices will last. Cattle coming off first claim retention in March could depress the market. Longer term, there is much EU beef overhanging the market following Russias economic crisis.

But continued promotion of British beef, coupled with a tightening of UK supplies due to last years contraction of the national dairy herd and an upturn in Calf Processing Aid Scheme throughput, should help, says the MLCs Duncan Sinclair.

The scheme accounted for 670,000 calves in 1998, 200,000 more than the UK shipped abroad before the export ban.