WHAT does the future hold for our beef industry? It was the question on most people’s lips at this year’s Beef Expo and the subject of the last seminar of the day.

Andrew Laughton, chairman of the organiser, the National Beef Association, certainly had some thoughts on the matter.

The vagaries of Brexit and the inability to make concrete plans is common to everyone in the industry, but the current level of return on cattle isn’t helping either. While lamb prices are buoyant, beef prices are not.

“In March, a lot of Irish beef was imported that post-Brexit would have been heavily tariffed,” said Andrew.

“It went into cold-store in preparation for a no-deal/WTO (World Trade Organisation rules) situation and, of course, that now has to come out.

“That’s seen to be part of the problem - the glut of beef on the market is forcing prices down - and it’s not really barbecue weather!”

While nobody knew what form Brexit would take, this was the time to look to the future and to push for a new and much better method of grading beef in Britain.

Under the EUROP Classification system established by the European Union in 1981, adult carcases are graded over a five-point scale based on conformation and fat.

“One of the things we discussed in the seminar was the need for a grading and payment system that would also reward good eating quality,” he said.

“We’d like to see it taken into account, because it doesn’t always follow that the best shaped animal will provide the best meat.

“The American and Australian systems both reward eating quality and we really need to follow suit.”

The EU insisted all member states used the EUROP grid, because it needed to have a consistency in carcase classifications, but that made it difficult to introduce new payment criteria.

He said: “Shape dictates how much meat you get off an animal, which is why good conformation earns more, but my argument is that if that meat isn’t tender and tasty, it really defeats the whole object.”

Scion of a family that has farmed in the Louth area for more than four generations, Andrew finishes up to 6000 animals outside each year.

In an era when farmers often earned less for their beef than it cost to rear the beast, and when the number of suckler herds was dropping by the year, one of the priorities of the NBA was getting the right message across to consumers - they are vouchsafed some of the finest beef in the world.

“Livestock farmers generally are a positive bunch who always try to do well and take great pride in their stock,” he said, “and so they should.

“We are producing a premium and very traceable product with a high level of animal welfare.”

What was crucial in the choppy waters ahead was that farmers were helped to stay afloat.

“As subsidies are set to change, we need to make sure that the meat industry and farming in general survives,” he said.

“Subsidies - are they for the benefit of the farmer or the consumer, if they ensure a supply of high quality food? It’s an interesting question.”

But perhaps the biggest concern at this point was whether there would be a level playing field post-Brexit.

He said: “What we don’t want is imported meat that is produced to lower standards, in terms of farm assurance and animal welfare, than our own.

“The NBA is fighting to make sure imported meat is produced to our standards, notwithstanding the air-miles.

“I don’t want to be defensive about imported meats, but I think it’s time to champion home produce and shout about the quality and high standards the buying public enjoys here.

“Do people want to eat the hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken that results from practices overseas that just aren’t allowed here, fullstop?”

The NBA was keen to promote the fact beef, as part of a balanced diet, was an important source not only of protein, but vitamins and minerals too.

“At the end of the day, farmers are feeding people,” said Andrew, “but I feel that’s sometimes forgotten.”