By her own admission, Claire Donoghue, who grew up on a dairy farm in Roscommon, “took a strange route into the food industry”, studying biomedical science. With the recession seeing a lot of companies scaling back and pharma, her natural career path, still looking at their options in Ireland, Claire took up a “stopgap” quality role in a meat plant in 2011 which was “50% lab, 50% quality”.
“The plant I started in was just an abattoir. Literally checks in the lairage, checks in the plant and checks on the beef going out. A very straightforward process in a plant with very experienced people in it. I always say, it was probably the making of me, that first job.”
That stopgap became six years for Claire working in Kepak, moving from quality into a technical manager role, into operations before progressing to site manager at the Clonee head office. Then with this weight of experience behind her, when the opportunity arose to move to OSI, she took it.
I – knowing only that OSI were McDonald’s chicken supplier at one stage and that the name would not be familiar to many – query; “Who are OSI?”
“That’s probably the most common question I get asked,” she smiles.
“OSI are the protein supplier into a lot of the major food service and retail brands. They are American and one of the largest privately owned food companies globally. We buy beef globally, in Europe and from Ireland. I’m operating out of Munich in the European side of the business.”
As to the unfamiliar name, she says “you don’t see Dawn or Kepak or ABP on a retail label. Beef is a commodity, you’ll see the different ranges, value or prime, within different retailers but it’s the retailer brand, Tesco or Aldi. It’s not Coca Cola or Pringles.”
In relation to how consumers affect the market for beef, Claire’s view is that consumer purchasing behaviour is completely subjective. “It has a lot to do with the rearing systems in the country, the actual meat that’s available - the image.
“Ask the average Irish consumer, what is a prime animal? Hopefully they’d say ‘under-30-month steers and heifers’. Ask the same consumer in central Europe and it’s bulls.”
Claire explains that where she is based in South Germany/Austria, the photo on the meat packs is a red and white animal on a mountain side. Austria is one of the biggest consumers of organic (food) globally and the biggest consumers of organic beef. This she attributes to what is available. “They send them up to the mountains for the summer. It’s back to tradition, what actually works,” she says.
Antibiotic use has been debated within the industry for years with companies now moving from reduction targets to responsible use. The danger, Claire says, with zero antibiotics is that “the animal needs antibiotics. We don’t want this to turn this into a welfare conversation. With the customer base we have, organic is never going to give us the volume that we need. There’s a place for it, like there’s a place for the Angus or Hereford branding. It’s a premium for the farmers within it.”
Is sustainable beef a misnomer?
“The consumer understands the carbon impacts of beef on one hand, but on the other, when we ask about their concerns when it comes to practices, you get an array of different answers,” she responds.
While the intricacies of methane emissions versus carbon emissions are rightly being discussed at industry-led events, this conversation confuses consumers, she notes.
And looking at consumer panels, Claire believes that we are making it complicated.
“Don’t get me wrong, the science and specifics, we need to be in a position to stand with the research but at a high level. Because when consumers don’t understand, then you get this conversation of, ‘Well, isn’t it easier just to step back from it or not eat it’.
Every consumer will say they want to eat more sustainably, but what does that actually mean?
“The beef and dairy industries are not good at telling their story around what we are actually doing. We need to get a clearer picture as to where we stand today and what needs to be done. Ireland is a bit ahead coming out with the country emissions targets. There’s a lot of talk about it in Europe, but not a lot of announcements or specifics. Take Germany for example, the equivalent of the Green Party is in. There’s a lot of big overarching statements about hefty agricultural targets. COVID and the energy crisis got in the way but the expectation is that they will reduce the herd. The direction of legislation is similar to the Netherlands.
“Farmers are incredibly worried. A significant difference for Ireland is that the Government seems willing to back measures to prove emissions reductions. In central Europe, the conversation is the same as here, kids going to the cities and not particularly interested in farming. Governments hinting that they’re not going to be supportive of initiatives and input costs increasing. The expectation is a lot of the smaller farmers will exit with Poland and Spain being the outliers. It comes down to what is a priority in these countries.”
The countries OSI are operating in across Europe are ~80% dairy-based and she can see Ireland and the UK moving in the same direction.
“It’s the position that we’re in that we have to deal with. All well and good to claim the suckler side is better or the dairy side is better, but you have to deal with what’s actually happening. There’s no individual supplier, customer or meat processor that’s going to influence that. The industry is changing for numerous reasons and we have to deal with the facts and the figures that are there.”
In this regard, she believes that beef being a commodity is actually an advantage in that no one beef processor’s product is better than another, with a whole industry answer needed. This ties into her work with the ERBS (see below).
We know there are two fillets on an animal, there are two striploins, but the product mix is changing with an increasing demand for the VL (the mince portion of the animal). Historically [on the boneless carcase] it was ~60:40 (VL) but now Claire says “that is pushing far closer to the US break down of 50:50 to mince.”
She admits that roasting cuts in modern households are no longer the preference with the volume in steak and mince. “The roasting joints are falling into the VL category, which is a lower value category and that is consumer demand,” she says.
There are two elements to Claire’s role. The operations side is focused on efficiencies, while the sustainability part is in the supply chain and raw material sourcing.
The conversation between OSI and their customers (retail and food service) is around sustainability, she says. “With these brands the biggest chunk of their sustainability targets and strategy is centred on beef and we are their source of beef.”
She, however, welcomes the move to more standardised science based targets.
“Customers are pretty clear on targets, on what they are reporting to stakeholders and investors. That set of targets comes back to us to deliver but it has to be a partnership. The previous state of travel was very much on the quality side – how are we differentiating from one retailer to the next? That is not this conversation with sustainability. We are back to the commodity conversation in terms of sourcing and your global supply chains. It needs to be an overall figure for beef.”
Claire acknowledges the support of some of the major food service brands they work with.
“They’re putting their money where their mouth is and are willing to look at the research, initiatives and science of how we are actually going to do this. This is resonating with consumers. But the industry must also communicate with their customers what farmers are already doing,” she advises.
“With tight margins - not rearing animals within the timeframe or not rearing them in an efficient system - that is not an option for farmers. To survive, they are already using techniques such as lowering the slaughter age [younger animal, less emissions]. That’s happening because of efficiency and the financial payback, sustainability might not even be top of the farmer’s agenda.”
Proving the benefits of a grass based system should go back to the industry, she asserts. “I don’t think that sits with farmers. The onus is on these big brands, who are setting these targets. It can’t be pushed back to the farmers, there has to be a payback for them.
“Farming is a business as much as a way of life, these are business decisions which have to be financially mapped out. Farmers will make that decision if it’s financially the right thing for them to do.”
Capability in the area of beef sustainability saw Claire Donoghue elected board chair of the largest multi-stakeholder group for beef sustainability in Europe, the European Roundtable for Beef Sustainability (ERBS) in 2020.
This group came together for all the aforementioned reasons; protein customers saying “we want sustainable beef”, while the answer to “what is sustainable beef?” varied demonstrably. So different elements of the industry, farmers, processors, retailers, food service and civil society came together to work on a framework and single voice around European beef sustainability conversations.
Claire says of their work; ”we’ve spent a huge amount of time and effort on setting the specific wording of targets, how we will report and when, who reports and who verifies. We need to move to offering that information [from countries doing well] to members as a knowledge sharing platform.”
The group have four targets that each of the six platforms across Europe [Bord Bia are the Irish platform] are free to work on. Claire believes that the critical piece- considering how different production is in Europe and globally- is that they are not dictating.
“So we don’t want it to be a box ticking standard because what works in Ireland is not going to be the same conversation that you’re having in Switzerland, never mind Australia and Brazil. Deforestation being one example. The outcome is more important than the way of going about it, as long as you are getting a strategy and plan in place to reduce your emissions.”
Recently the ERBS with the SAI platform released a new practical guidance on GHG mitigation options and strategies. Available here: https://saiplatform.org/our-work/reports-publications/practical-guidance-for-mitigating-ghg-emissions-in-beef-dairy-systems/