Irish grass-fed beef poised to make the most of emerging niches in US
A new premium category in beef that is gaining market share in the US could offer Irish producers an opportunity, if research by Teagasc's Dr Aidan Moloney and UCD's Helen Roche bears fruit.
'Grass-fed' beef has secured a small but significant share of the US meat market in the few years that it has existed.
It is a reaction to the concentrate intensive feed-lots that produce the vast majority of US beef.
The definition for grass-fed beef requires the animal to be reared for its entire life on a grass-only diet.
This, in turn, maximises the levels of conjugated linoleic acids (CLA), which is proven to have benefits on cholesterol, diabetes and as an anti-oxidant.
"There was a lot of excitement about CLA 15 years ago, and manufacturers started manufacturing them en masse," said UCD's Prof Helen Roche.
"But we subsequently found out that there are two different CLAs that have a good and bad effect on cholesterol," she added.
The good news for farmers is that the good CLA is the one most readily found in the likes of grass-fed beef, and the concentrations of CLA found in meat is entirely dose- dependent.
In other words, the more grass that an animal consumes during its life, the more CLA will be found in its meat.
Research has also confirmed the anti-oxidant properties of meat that is high in CLA.
High CLA meat has a longer shelf life because it is more stable, indicating that it has higher levels of anti-oxidants.
"The challenges for us are to firstly quantify the impact that different levels of CLA intake has on human health.
"That will allow us figure out how much CLA we need to have in a product before we can make any health claims about it," said Prof Roche.
The next step is to figure out what is the most practicable level of grass inclusion to have in the animal's diet, according to Dr Moloney.
"This, in turn, will inform what we should be pushing for in terms of defining what constitutes grass-fed," said Dr Moloney.
The Teagasc man believes that premiums of 20-40pc could be achievable for grass-fed beef products.
He plans to focus the research on early maturing heifers at Grange.