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German fair is the spot for Irish companies to tout for business

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John Purcell, centre, with a group of French chefs interested in using organic beef in their restaurants.

John Purcell, centre, with a group of French chefs interested in using organic beef in their restaurants.

John Purcell, centre, with a group of French chefs interested in using organic beef in their restaurants.

A year on from the horsemeat scandal and consumers in Ireland and throughout Europe are demanding more traceability and accountability within the meat industry.

While leaving in its wake a lot of unanswered questions, the scandal has raised the issue of the feasibility of providing meat products at low-cost prices.

On the back of the scandal, many producers within the premium segment witnessed an increase in sales, and Irish organic beef was no exception, with sales well up overall from the sector.

BIOFACH 2014

Biofach, the largest organic trade fair in Europe, takes place every February in Nuremburg, Germany. It is here that you will find Irish companies, backed up by Bord Bia and the Department of Agriculture, touting for business and access to the valuable EU market.

This is the 25th anniversary of the event and over 2,400 exhibitors and 40,000 trade buyers attend over the three days.

Irish organic meat and salmon are the main products exported, with companies such as Good Herdsmen and Burren Smokehouse leading the charge.

The well-established organic markets in the EU have a demand, not just for organic, but high-quality organic. 2012 saw an increase of 11pc in the sales of organic meat products in Europe, with countries like Germany leading the way.

The positive image of Irish beef gains even more credibility when it carries an organic logo. John Purcell, who is managing director of Good Herdsmen, claims that there is a huge emphasis on buying local organic meat in Europe. "For this reason, breaking into any market can be difficult," he said.

"However, we are winning on quality, particularly in the valuable German and Italian markets.

"Previously, our trade had been with wholesalers, but last year we got our first breakthrough in the retail market when we started supplying Basic Supermarkets in Germany.

"They have 27 organic supermarkets and their internal weekly analysis shows that our product outsold the local alternative every week.

"This is extremely encouraging for us as this is a competitive and mature organic market, dominated by consumer demands."

An annual exhibitor at Biofach, Mr Purcell outlines the importance of attending trade shows.

"It is our entry port into the EU market and, each year, we gain valuable contracts at Biofach," he says.

Currently supplying the largest manufacturer of organic baby food in the world, Mr Purcell knows the importance of continuity of supply that is necessary to fill big contracts.

"We just signed another contract in Germany worth €2.2m. It's on the back of the perception that Irish organic meat is an excellent clean product, with little or no residues.

"Organic baby food is the fastest-growing sector in Europe and we are in a great position to supply the protein ingredients required," he said.

SHEEP

The steady supply and demand that currently characterises organic beef is not being fully replicated in the sheep sector. Mr Brennan also works closely with Slaney Meats and Irish Country Meats in Camolin, Co Wexford to supply the market with Irish organic lamb.

"The last few years have been difficult for the lamb trade. Farmers who sell directly have been faring well, but overall it has not been easy.

"Consumers do not have a perception of any major differences between organic and conventional lamb production. Last year, we did manage to sell some into France, Germany and the low countries.

"We need more promotion of Irish organic lamb abroad in order to access markets.

"The Leitrim Organic Co-op will be at Biofach this year trying to replicate the success of Irish organic beef," he said.

FINISHING ORGANIC BEEF IN IRELAND

Like the conventional sector, finished cattle generally tend to come from larger scale farms.

The economics of finishing cattle is variable and can be subject to market stability and individual farm management. John Brennan, manager of the Leitrim Organic Farmers Co-op, works closely with farmers to get organic meat to the market. Established in 1998, the co-op has approximately 150 members. It also carries out advisory work through Skillnets, BTAP and STAP programmes and the Co-op also works to promote rare breeds.

LEITRIM ORGANIC CO-OP AND SLANEY FOODS

John Brennan works with Slaney Foods sourcing organic animals directly from farmers and ensuring continuity of supply.

"There is a big variation in gross margins with farmers around the country. We see farmers operating many different systems and, in my opinion, the more serious finishers are reducing their inputs rather than solely relying on continued prices increases.

"Thankfully, the systems lend themselves to being low input," said Mr Brennan.

"There are a number of finishers using green crops such as kale or turnips to reduce the need for expensive concentrates. Strip grazing fields and out-wintering animals to reduce straw and labour also increases profit margins," he explained.

GRASS-FED BEEF

2014 has started out significantly different than 2013, with many farmers benefiting from the excellent second half of 2013. Many animals were not brought indoors until December, allowing a considerably shorter indoor feeding regime.

"The farmers that we work with are reporting fantastic fodder crops from last year, with high dry matter content in silage and red clover silage reaching 14-15pc crude protein levels.

"All of this greatly reduces the need for farmers to feed concentrates to animals and gives real weight to the term Grass-fed beef," said Mr Brennan.

Prices being paid to organic farmers so far in 2014 are just under €5/kg. This is lower than last year, but will possibly rise as the spring progresses.

"The reality is that, if the price stays around €5/kg, we can sell a lot more Irish organic beef. This price is on a par with Britain, which makes Irish organic beef more competitive," said Mr Brennan.

"Store cattle are moving well, as are farm-to-farm and direct sales via our website. Most farmers are moving away from continental to traditional breeds. Almost 90pc of organic animals going to Slaney Foods last year were an Angus cross.

"The traditional breeds are lower maintenance and can be finished off grass. Finishers are looking for animals over 300kg to have stronger animals being turned out at the back-end," he said.

Grace Maher is development officer with IOFGA, which is having its AGM and annual conference today in the County Arms Hotel in Birr, Co Offaly. For more information, see www.iofga.org

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