Opinion

The work to secure PGI status for beef from Northern Ireland must start now

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Charlie McConalogue has confirmed that the application to secure Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status for ‘Irish Grass-Fed Beef’ has been submitted to Brussels.

However, he has also indicated that the Republic of Ireland would support the PGI being extended on an all-island basis, when a grass-fed verification system is in place in Northern Ireland.

This is a very positive development and behoves all stakeholder groups within Northern Ireland’s beef sector to come together and make PGI a tangible reality across the island. Research confirms that the bestowing of PGI status can lift producer returns within the sectors involved by up to 20%.

With a Brexit trade deal struck and the Northern Ireland Protocol kicking-in over the coming days, it makes sense to have the attainment of all island PGI status for Irish beef a priority for the early months of 2021.

Similarities across the border

The good news is that the beef industries on both parts of this island mirror each other, in terms of their structure. Suckler beef is critically important to both industries – as is grass utilisation.

In fact, McConalogue’s commitment to make PGI work on an all-island basis comes at a time when the pressure to have grass utilisation levels increased within Northern Ireland’s beef sector has never been greater.

A case in point is the ongoing CAFRE (College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise) trial work, looking at the sustainability of 24-month calf-to-beef. This work is already highlighting the critically important role which grazed grass must play within these systems.

The other factor that must be brought into play is the role of the farm quality assurance schemes, managed by the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) and Bord Bia.

Almost 100% of the clean cattle slaughtered in Northern Ireland are farm quality-assured. This fact alone should give Dublin and Brussels total assurance when it comes to assessing the management standards applied in the rearing of these animals.

It must also be pointed out that Northern Ireland’s beef industry has a BSE (commonly knowns as Mad Cow Disease) ‘negligible risk’ status. This was achieved back in 2017. On the back of this very positive development, the sector was deemed eligible to export beef to the USA earlier this year.

So it shouldn’t take a massive effort to gather up all the information that will be required to underpin a PGI ‘grass-fed beef’ application on behalf of Northern Ireland. The sooner this is done the better.

It strikes me that LMC is the organisation best placed to undertake this work. Farmer margins are pretty low within the beef sector, even at the best of times. So the case to get the PGI application over the line as soon as possible is pretty obvious.