When a piece of beef lands on a plate, the most important beefy consideration to the person wielding the cutlery, is the performance of the meat between teeth and on taste buds – the beef’s tenderness, taste and succulence.

Eating is the ultimate beef test. Where the beef came from, the animal’s colour, size, weight, bulginess of bottom, name of daddy, how many rosettes it won and how many labels were stuck on the raw product, all pale into insignificance. All that matters at this final stage is ‘how good the beef is to eat’.

Yet, the EUROP carcase grading system has little correlation to eating quality.

Let’s face it: British beef’s ‘Elephant in the room,’ is inconsistent eating quality. Little wonder then, that with our higgledy piggledy variety of breeds and production systems, a higgledy piggledy variety of beef is inevitable.

Beef is not cheap. Bad beef is very expensive. Good beef is excellent value.

Anticipation is part of the enjoyment of a meal of beef, so when beef disappoints, it is remembered. It can take a long time to be forgiven!

Meanwhile, the disappointed beef eater has a wide choice of alternative and often considerably cheaper protein to keep them well-fed.

Working on the television series – ‘Scotland’s Larder,’ which broadcast many pasture to plate stories – brought me into contact with meat processors/retailers/restaurateurs outwith Scotland, including some overseas. Almost all expressed concern that Scotch beef was becoming more about ticked boxes and paperwork, than eating quality.

There was also a shared opinion that our beef production systems were dropping out of harmony with the traditional, nostalgic impression implied by the ‘Scotch’ label.

Over the last two decades plus, the hangover from BSE has restricted Scotland’s access to some lucrative overseas markets, but thankfully significant overseas doors are re-opening to British beef, including Japan, which lifted its 1996-imposed ban last year.

Some interesting stats – In 2018, Japan imported more than 600,000 tonnes of beef, while in 2017, Scotland produced just more than 167,000 tonnes of beef and veal.

Ironically, prior to BSE, the Japanese had been keen to import Aberdeen-Angus beef from Scotland. And while there was little hope then of enough Angus cattle in Scotland being able to meet the Japanese demand, BSE sunk all hopes of supplying any of this lucrative market.

Japan found an alternative Aberdeen-Angus beef supplier – New Zealand, which has never had a case of BSE and Aberdeen-Angus is the numerically dominant breed.

To obtain a consistent supply of exactly the right type of grain-finished, heavily marbled beef, that their consumers require, in the early 1990s, Japanese food company, Itoham – working with ANZCO, a subsidiary of the New Zealand Meat Board – established a 20,000 head capacity, Five Star Beef feedlot, on the East coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

With an annual throughput of 30,000 cattle, the Five Star venture focused on the consumer. Having established what the target consumer sought and was prepared to pay a premium for, every step from the consumer’s teeth, taste buds and tummy right back to conception of the calf, is designed around consistently and profitably producing what the consumer wanted.

This grain finishing venture in a country where livestock farming is almost entirely pastoral, forced changes on the highly involved New Zealanders. “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change” – Charles Darwin.

Every week, hundreds of finished cattle head from Five Star to the abattoir. Maintenance of consistent outflow of correctly finished cattle demands constant inflow of the right type of cattle. This had generated a variety of producer contracts, offering budgeting confidence and protection against market fluctuation.

Examples of grazing contracts include Five Star supplying growing cattle to farmers who are paid per kg of weight gain, up to a specified weight, with additional weekly payment during the winter period.

Another example: Farmers choose to buy their own suckled calves/store cattle, for growing on, contracting them to Five Star for a pre-agreed price per kg.

New Zealand’s Professor of animal science, Steve Morris – a keynote speaker at QMS’ January, 2009, Conference – was involved in the establishment of the feedlot. He acknowledged that Five Star’s constant demand for a specific type of beef animal ‘had encouraged New Zealand farmers to breed the type of cattle Five Star wanted’, and that: ‘Five Star’s must-have approach to sourcing cattle, had helped to lift prices for all NZ beef cattle.’

While Aberdeen-Angus is the breed specified by Five Star in New Zealand, Meat Standards Australia’s consumer focussed beef grading system, launched in 1999, is not breed specific (there is automatic down grading of humped breed beef), and was developed to improve the supply of consistently high quality beef to the consumer.

To qualify, cattle must have been produced under stipulated management and animal welfare conditions (Australian equivalent to Farm Assurance) and be within specifications for weight, dentition and fat depth. Failure to hit all the spec’s, resulted in a hefty drop in price per kg.

With eating quality the focus, qualifying carcases are assessed for eye muscle area, ossification (cartilage to bone in vertebrae), marbling, meat and fat colour, rib fat depth and meat pH level.

The beef is then graded and labelled, 3, 4 or 5 Star, depending on its anticipated eating quality, with each cut labelled accordingly. This eating quality grade travels with the meat to the retail counter and restaurant menu.

How many British consumers consider if a particular piece of beef came from a carcase which graded E3L, R4H or some other permutation from the EUROP grid?

The premium earned by the better graded beef encouraged Australian cattle farmers to aim for 5 Stars, consequently helping to lift the overall quality of the nation’s beef. And after all, darn it ... beef is for eating!

Members of the Australian meat industry visited Scotland to share information on their consumer-focussed meat grading scheme. Donald MacPherson, who runs the meat business, Well Hung and Tender, from his Berwickshire farm, used his 2002 Nuffield Scholarship to study eating quality beef grading in America and Australia.

One of Donald’s conclusions: “Industry leaders and government departments in the US and Australia have grasped the concept that: ‘Improve Eating Quality – Improve Consumption – Improve Returns’.”

For year ending July, 2019, by value and volume, 97% of Scotland’s £50m worth of beef exports went to the EU.

Despite what Team Boris achieve, Scotland needs to tap into lucrative overseas beef markets, while at least retaining market share in Britain, particularly as it seems that trade deals with the likes of North America and Australasia, will see substantial quantities of their eating-quality graded and labelled beef, arriving in British meat processors, retailers and restaurants.

The Scotch Beef industry may wish to ponder which label on a piece of beef will appeal most to the British consumer – a blue ‘Scotch Beef,’ a Red Tractor, or 5 Stars for eating quality?

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory” –

W Edwards Deming.