Supermarket chains stand accused

11 June 1999

Focus on eating quality to make beef attractive

Declining beef consumption

in Britain may have more to

do with unreliable eating

quality than BSE, modern

lifestyles or vegetarianism.

Marianne Curtis reports

STOP blaming BSE for the decline in beef consumption and start asking questions about whether beef from your cattle is deliciously tender or disappointingly tough when it reaches the table.

That is the conclusion of Nuffield farming scholar, Pauline Adams, who runs 350 sucklers and 100 pedigree Belgian Blue cows with her husband Joe, on their 280ha (700 acre) Park House Farm, Watford Village, Northants.

"At the time of my award it was obvious that we were working harder but not making any money," says Mrs Adams. This prompted her to look at how to restore consumer confidence and increase beef consumption in the UK.

After visiting Australia, New Zealand and Zimbabwe and speaking to abattoirs, MPs and industry organisations, Mrs Adams believes she may have some of the answers.

In Australia, beef consumption is 44kg (96.8lb) a head a year, compared with 14.5kg (31.9lb) in the UK. Speaking to the Australian Meat Research Corporation (AMRC) – equivalent to the MLC – Mrs Adams discovered that three years ago beef consumption in the country was stagnant. Concerned, the AMRC instigated an eating quality standards scheme.

Branding the product was central to the scheme, and starts on farm. "To be eligible, cattle need to have a continuous daily live-weight gain and be rested for a full day before slaughter with no mixing of different groups," she says.

"An easily understood star system is used: three star for good quality beef for every day meals, four star for succulent tasty beef for a special dish and five star for first class gourmet full flavoured beef.

"Particular attention is paid to processing with a star rating relating to the time hung – the longer the better.

"Demand for the branded product is particularly strong even though the price could be three times higher than for unbranded product. This proves to me that consumers will pay more for a product that guarantees satisfaction," she says. Producers are also keen because they receive a 12-15p/kg lwt premium.

The AMRC reports that consumer satisfaction has since increased from 55% to 90%.

In New Zealand, targeting schools and emphasis on eating quality has helped boost beef consumption by 11% over the past five years.

"The New Zealand meat board highlights the importance of meat in a young persons diet using the slogan Iron, the Bodys Gold. More needs to be done by the MLC to emphasise the health aspects of eating beef in the UK," says Mrs Adams.

Educating consumers about eating quality is also evident. "Leaflets in supermarkets explain that the longer the product is kept in the vacuum pack – up to eight weeks – the more tender it will be. Also that darkness of the beef is not a bad reflection of eating quality."

One aspect of New Zealand beef production that surprises Mrs Adams is the use of hormones which seems to conflict with the countrys clean green image. "We should capitalise on our hormone- free beef in the UK," she says.

In contrast, Zimbabwe, which often has a poor reputation in the UK, may produce better eating beef than our own. "Despite the horror stories I hear about African beef in the UK, cattle welfare, traceability and quality is of an acceptably high standard. Their attention to detail on the processing side with respect to eating quality is far superior to some of our own abattoirs."

Supermarket chains stand accused

WITH six out of 10 UK consumers worried about serving steak at dinner parties in case it is tough, producers need to take control to ensure that British beef is a product to be proud of.

Pauline Adams is frustrated by this figure, gained from interviewing shoppers outside supermarkets as part of her Nuffield scholarship. "Why spend 20-30 months producing a product with pride, care and attention which will be ruined in three to four days by poor processing methods?

"Some supermarkets admit that throughput and freshness are the priority. Very reluctant to hold stocks in store, there are cases where supermarkets order beef on Tuesday, cattle are killed on Wednesday and beef is on the shelves by Saturday.

"Promises that beef has been hung for a minimum of seven days, are clearly being broken.

"Abattoirs should refuse to drop below specification when requested to do so: supermarkets should not be allowed to rush beef through at the expense of eating quality and beef producers future share of the meat market."

Mrs Adams believes that, like its Australian counterpart, the MLC needs to focus on improving eating quality. "The MLC should stop trotting out the same old reasons for decline in beef consumption such as BSE, increasing vegetarianism and lack of time to prepare meals in modern lifestyles, and concentrate on improving eating quality.

"The MLC admits to knowing only half the factors that contribute to tenderness; in New Zealand this figure is 95% for companies offering a tenderness guarantee. Even in Scotland the Glenbervie abattoir at Stonehaven which supplies top London restaurants, can guarantee good eating quality 99% of the time."

With fewer small abattoirs surviving due to increasing legislative burden, Mrs Adams warns that beef quality will only get worse. "The problem is that many large abattoirs used to slaughter cull cows. Then processing methods didnt matter and high throughput was the main objective. The same approach is now being used with prime beef."

Smaller abattoirs

In smaller abattoirs, Mrs Adams reports that animals are less stressed in the lairage, groups of cattle are not mixed and trouble is taken to separate bulling heifers. "Studies in other countries demonstrate that stress before slaughter is a major reason for tough meat."

"The MLC 1991 blueprint -designed to improve beef quality during processing – is not enforced. I feel that a star branding system similar to that used in Australia is needed to reassure customers and reward good production and processing."

Following her abattoir visits, Mrs Adams says she will be keeping a closer eye on where her cattle go when they leave the farm gate. "We will try to boycott abattoirs where poor processing occurs."

She also welcomes farmers markets which cut out the middle man and provide the opportunity to sell higher quality produce. Bringing the farmer closer to the consumers and their needs is a vital aspect of the markets, she says.

With 56m potential beef consumers in the UK, Mrs Adams feels that efforts should be focussed at home rather than on the export market.

"We cant afford to let the supermarkets and large abattoirs ruin our beef industry," she warns. &#42

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