‘The best stock man in the world can’t accurately gauge beef grades and fat scores’

A long-term strategy is needed to address on-going concerns over the country’s “complicated” beef pricing system, Fine Gael MEP Sean Kelly has warned.

The MEP says the grading system is causing “huge confusion and frustration” among beef farmers and primary experts – with many struggling to make accurate judgements on conformation and fat scoring ahead of kill.

Although the aim of the Beef Carcase Classification Scheme is to ensure a common classification standard throughout the European Union, Kelly is calling for a “total analysis” of the system – including an examination of “price-pulling trends” on factory floors.

The best stock man in the world can come into my farm; look at my bullocks for sale; tell me the grade and fat score; yet, when you get back your results there can be a huge difference between them. That is illogical.

“It’s so complicated that nobody can understand it or make an accurate distinction. There are so many different rates that no-one can can possibly get it right looking at it from the human eye.

“When the primary experts can’t predict down to the finest details what is going to happen, it doesn’t make sense.

“In medical terms, if doctors were like that, there would be wrong diagnosis every day of the week and people would be dying. That is a major issue and it needs to be addressed,” he said.

Kelly is currently working on a number of proposals to address the issue. He said he intends to speak with farm organisations, the competition authority and factories in the coming weeks.

Raising consumer awareness on grades

He believes consumers also need to be more aware of beef classification.

“I have yet to go to a restaurant – anywhere in the world – where I’m told the meat I’m eating is ‘R-grade’ or ‘U-grade’, fat score plus or fat score minus. It’s just down as ‘prime Irish beef’ or ‘artisan beef’ or whatever.

“If the consumer is buying, I find it very difficult to understand why they are not told about these things when they are actually paying for the meat across the table.”

Kelly is also deeply concerned about “obvious price-pulling trends” by factories.

If there is any talk at all of a glut, bad weather, sterling dropping, or anything of that nature, it automatically seems to trigger a downward spiral in prices and that usually continues right until the end of the year.

“There has been a huge impact on profitability already. We can see many are getting out of beef because of the difficulty of making ends meet. If we are to maintain our cattle and the reputation they have worldwide, we have to keep the producers in profit – but that doesn’t seem to be the way at the minute.

“There needs to be an independent analysis of the situation with some sort of committee set up involving farmers, producers and wholesalers. There needs to be a more longer term strategy to get to the bottom of all this,” he said.

Transparency

Eddie Punch, general secretary of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association (ICSA), has described the grid as “a very severe system”.

“We need to move to a scenario where there is more visibility about what farmers get and that you don’t suddenly get crucified because you miss out on a particular grade; or because animals are too heavy.

We need to get much closer to getting paid for every pound; or every kilo of meat produced. We also need a lot more transparency on margins at retail level and processing level.

“It’s not good enough that nobody seems to know how much is being made by the likes of Tesco,” he said.

Meanwhile, Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) has this week called for a “major review” of procedures used to rank beef sires.

The decision comes amid concerns over limited performance data being used to index bull rankings.

The ICBF and the artificial insemination (AI) industry are expected to meet in the coming weeks to discuss a new format for evaluations.