The Weir family farm in Co Donegal was chosen as the venue for the launch of the recently gained Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Irish grass-fed beef. The PGI designation was awarded by the EU on an island of Ireland basis.

Andrew Muir MLA, recently appointed Agriculture Minister in Northern Ireland joined Minister Charlie McConalogue for the event.

If the longest journey starts with a single step, that step was taken outside Lifford in Co Donegal, but there is no certainty of what direction the journey will take other than it will be long.

The first question for Minister McConalogue in the questions and answers session was what value would the PGI add for farmers producing Irish grass-fed beef, to which the response was that “is not something you can quantify at this stage.”

He added that the “objective is to ensure that the quality of our fantastic product is clearly communicated to customers everywhere.”

The minister is correct in explaining the benefit of a PGI with the latter point. Compliance with State aid rules means that Government agencies like Bord Bia are not allowed to use national identity in the promotion of products.

That is why Bord Bia promotion campaigns may use Irish scenery for the images, but the words and text have excluded ‘Ireland’ and ‘Irish’, focusing instead on quality schemes and production systems for Irish agrifood produce.

With a PGI attached, Bord Bia will be able to liberally refer to the area that Irish grass-fed beef comes from and give promotion schemes greater focus and clarity.

The next step in building a brand for Irish beef will be taken in Italy towards the end of this month, when the first product will hit the shelves with PGI branding.

Jim O’Toole, CEO Bord Bia wouldn’t reveal the details when asked by the Irish Farmers Journal at the launch event, but he did say that it was a long-established customer of Irish beef and that they have a deep understanding of and commitment to the use of PGI brands across a range of products.

When asked about rollout in other markets, and how many customers we might expect to have a year from now, he said that research has identified potential in Belgium, Switzerland, France and Germany as well as Italy, and that Bord Bia were in discussion with retailers across these markets.

He wouldn’t be tied down on how many customers the brand was likely to attract over the next year, saying that it is “about securing our place in the longer term,” and that it wasn’t possible to put a strict timeline on that.

Specification for Irish grass-fed beef

To qualify for the Irish grass-fed beef PGI designation, the beef must come from cattle that have a 90% grass diet, either grazed or preserved in hay or silage but with at least 200 days of the animal’s life being spent grazing pasture.

Bord Bia has a grass-fed standard established in the Republic of Ireland, while the Livestock and Meat Commission is putting a scheme in place for Northern Ireland,which is currently a work in progress.

While the specification for cattle type is broad, it doesn’t include all cattle. Steers and heifers must be no older than 36 months and be a minimum O– grade with a fat score between 2+ and 5.

Cows cannot be over 10 years old and have a minimum O+ grade and a fat score between 2+ and 5.

Explainer – What does PGI mean?

The EU has a range of geographical indications which “establish intellectual property rights for specific products, whose qualities are specifically linked to the area of production.”

A PGI “emphasises the relationship between the specific geographic region and the name of the product, where a particular quality, reputation or other characteristic is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.”

A variation of this – GI or Geographical Indication of spirit drinks is used when a drink is particularly associated with an area, the example best known in Ireland is Irish whiskey, which is also applied on an island of Ireland basis.

For either a PGI or GI for spirits, the product has to be associated with area, but it isn’t necessary for the ingredients to come from the area, so imported grain can be used in the manufacture of Irish whiskey.

Other EU designations are: Protected designation of origin (PDO) where everything associated with the product must come from the area, and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG), which underpins the manufacturing process but is not geographically restricted.

Table 1 lists the PGIs, GIs and PDOs that are registered for food and drink businesses on the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine and Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (NI) websites.

Comment: No better option

Last week’s launch of an island of Ireland brand by the Agriculture Ministers from both jurisdictions provided an excellent photo opportunity to demonstrate North-South collaboration without being politically controversial.

However, farmers will be disappointed that there is no immediate beef price benefit from this initiative, or an indication of how much having a PGI brand might be worth in future.

Yet the minister was correct to say that the value to the price of beef was “not something you can quantify at this stage.

” Securing a PGI for grass-fed beef is only the start of the process of building a brand, and having the PGI designation clears the road for use of funding to be very specific in the promotion of the brand.

If Bord Bia is to be successful with this, it will require a supply of raw material which is in place, plus the buy-in of beef processors, which will only become apparent with the passage of time.

They have kept a low profile in the application process, and were not involved in the launch.

However, all export approved processors do at least some business in mainland Europe, and it could well be an opportunity for factories that aren’t directly engaged in the supply of UK supermarket and burger chains.

Even for those that are, it could be an additional opportunity that complements this business.

Bord Bia were reluctant to be tied down on a timeframe for rollout of the PGI in markets for Irish beef. We know there is one customer in place at the moment, with the hope that others will quickly follow.

While there can’t be a defined timeframe for this, we would hope to see significant progress over the coming months, because if in a year from now there isn’t a substantial customer base for PGI accredited grass-fed beef, momentum would risk being lost.

The bottom line is that this is the best last chance to create a brand that adds value to Irish beef that is in any way comparable to what Kerrygold delivers for Irish dairy.

If the brand can be successfully built, then it should create a value for the supply chain and put some extra money into the farm gate price of beef. There are no guarantees with this venture but there is no better option and it deserves full support.

In brief

  • The Irish grass-fed beef PGI is for the whole island of Ireland..
  • Opportunity to build a brand.
  • Potential markets identified in mainland Europe.
  • One customer to take deliveries from end of March.
  • No farm gate price premium yet.