Adam Henson on the importance of buying British beef

Adam Henson reveals how British beef is now recognised as among the best in the world

Hereford Bull

There’s nothing more British than beef. In fact, the French have even adopted the idea in their cheeky insult for us; on the continent we’re sometimes referred to as ‘Les rosbifs’ (the roast beefs).

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For a farmer like me, and for millions of people who love home-reared meat, it’s not so much an insult, more a huge compliment. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with a world-class product? British beef is produced to the highest possible standards and there are strict rules regarding hygiene, animal welfare and traceability. Every newborn calf is ear-tagged, twice, with a unique identification code and its herd number.

The cattle passport system records the animal’s mother, date and place of birth as well as its tag details, which are fed in to a national database. Unlike in many overseas countries, GM feed and growth-promoting hormones are banned in the UK, while antibiotics can only be given to cattle with approval and direction from a vet.

Even the final stage of the process is carried out under rigid regulations; vets and hygiene officers have to attend all abattoirs and the slightest breach of welfare rules or sign of contamination during slaughter means work is stopped until the problem is corrected.

Around two million animals are reared for beef in the UK each year, about half from beef herds and half born to dairy herds. When they’re old enough, the calves are weaned for a period of months before they’re suitable for finishing. They’ll be ready for the abattoir at between 12 and 30 months of age.

Industry recovery

The beef industry in this country has not had an easy ride over the past couple of decades. BSE, bans on exports and the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in 2001 were devastating. But the recovery has been remarkable. Not only did the industry survive, but it also improved its safety and standards to become the envy of many countries around the world.

In the last few years, there have been lots of negative news reports about eating too much red meat. But very few mention its importance as part of a balanced diet. Beef is a great source of protein and essential vitamins and minerals such as iron, zinc, B vitamins, magnesium and selenium.

Farm shops, farmers’ markets and butchers are great at explaining the origins of their meat. Fortunately, the supermarket chains are now good at highlighting British produce, too. However, there are some labelling pitfalls to be wary of if it’s UK beef you’re after. Everyone’s aware of country of origin labels, but the EU rules don’t apply to processed foods. What’s more, there’s no stipulation about the size of the wording, so the country of origin could be swamped by other information.

Look for the EU Health Mark if you’re buying fresh raw beef, such as mince. But remember that a UK mark only identifies where the meat was processed, not the country it originally came from. Also, don’t assume that meat from a British breed was farmed here; there are lots of Aberdeen Angus and Hereford producers overseas. I’m sure many are top quality, but there’s no way of guaranteeing that.

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The best advice is to look for the Red Tractor logo. These days even the finest food markets in Paris are demanding British beef for their most discerning customers. After all these years, perhaps they’re learning to love ‘Les rosbifs’.