Fifth quarter comeback is good news for butchers, processors and for our livestock producers
Once upon a time, when school children were still allowed to be slapped and before women wore the trousers, a farmer could have a home freezer lamb or heifer slaughtered for free by a butcher or meat plant.
Today, if you want to slaughter your own animal for the freezer, you will be asked for about €15 a sheep and €80 to €90 for a heifer.
The difference between then and now is the contribution (or lack of contribution) that the fifth quarter can make to the overall income from an animal. Then, the hide skins and so-called offal covered the slaughter cost with a nice margin left over. Then, beef slaughter plants could even sell carcases at a few pence per lb less than the price paid to the farmer, and the fifth quarter still brought the animal in profit.
Then came BSE in cattle and, to a lesser extent, scrapie in sheep. Overnight meat and bone meal from ruminants became a huge cost rather than an asset. Hides and skins have also seen a lot of price volatility in the past decade.
Thankfully, the BSE threat has receded but much of the industry, that built up around BSE, lives on. And it lives on at a major cost to the cattle and sheep producer and to the whole economy.
When the disease first struck, regulators did well in that beef remained on the shelves in the face of the most almighty scare. Now, we are in calmer times, some of the BSE prompted measures are seen as not scientifically justified. There's also a feeling that some have a vested interest in not changing the BSE controls.
However, the EU Commission itself is looking at unwinding some of the controls. A recent EU paper called The TSE Roadmap II envisages that bovine meat and bone meal can be reintroduced into non-ruminant rations over the next few years.
From an Irish viewpoint, that change cannot come quickly enough. As a country we produced over 130,000t of meat and bone meal last year. Seventy seven thousand tonnes of this is called 'category 1' and is used for incineration in Germany or at a cement plant in Kilbeggan, where a gate fee of €10 to €30/t is charged. Sixty thousand tonns is deemed 'category 3' and can be used in pet food and as a fertiliser. Transforming this into product worth €250/t (at today's soya price) could deliver a significant payback on the fifth quarter of each animal.