Pending final clearance from the Department of Agriculture (DA), Spanish beef will soon be available for Filipino consumers to enjoy. It will compete head to head with beef imported from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Japan, all of whom have dominated the premium segment of the market. Spanish beef promises superior quality across its entire range of cuts and grades at more competitive prices. With more options and greater value, this development is a win for the Filipino consumer.
Last week, member companies of PROVACUNO, the umbrella organization of the Spanish beef industry, was in Manila to meet with potential importers, restaurateurs, and select members of media. Spanish Ambassador Jorge Moragas hosted a dinner and briefed us about the unique characteristics of Spanish beef. It was an experience that was both delicious and educational.
For most Filipinos, good beef is marked by a high fat content (marbling), tenderness, and a distinct bovine flavor. This is why the Japanese wagyu variety became the gold standard for most. Spanish beef has other benchmarks of quality. For Spaniards (and Europeans), good beef must not only be juicy, it must have adequate muscle structure to make it firm to the bite and smooth to the tongue. Flavor-wise, the beefy flavor must be both present and pleasant, not overpowering nor gamey. Visually, the fat must be of a pale yellow color, the muscle fibers must be bright red (not matte), and the bone should be ivory with an absence of black stains. Good coloring should be consistent throughout the whole cut of meat. Proper juiciness is characterized by an explosion of meaty nectar in the mouth when bit into, not dripping wet even before biting it.
We were served rib eyes and prime ribs expertly prepared by renowned chef Iñigo Urrechu. Indeed, I found the beef different from Japanese wagyu. It delivered on its promise of being well structured, explosively juicy, and aromatically pleasant. The unique aroma of Spanish beef is a result of its feedstock which is primarily cereal and oilseed.
Beef from PROVACUNO producers adhere to the European Production Model (EPM). EPM is known worldwide for having the highest food safety standards. Each cut of beef is tagged with a traceable code that tells you where the cow came from, its sex, age, feedstock, manner by which it butchered ,and details of its cold chain. This labelling systems is tantamount to a health and commercial guarantee.
Controls against animal diseases and the use of hormones are extremely rigid. So stiff are the quality control measures that the World Organization for Animal Health has included Spain in its list of countries where the risk of mad cow disease is negligible.
Despite the fact that cow raising is the most environmentally damaging form of animal husbandry, PROVACUNO members have adopted a system to reduce the methane emitted by their cows, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The Spanish beef industry is a world leader in animal welfare too. Producers are made to ensure that the animals enjoy a good quality of life and that their slaughter is humane, if not painless.
Spain is now the 4th largest beef producer in the EU and the 14th largest exporter in the world. In 2016, it exported €900 million worth of beef products primarily to Portugal and the Netherlands. Hong Kong is its biggest market in Asia. PROVACUNO has high hopes for the Philippines considering our market size and increasing purchasing power.
In terms of health benefits, most Filipinos think that beef is laden with bad cholesterol. Nothing could be further from the truth. Dietitians attest that beef provides proteins of high biological value, iron zinc, magnesium, and potassium. It is also rich in vitamins A, D, E, K, C, and B12, which is essential for the formulation of red blood cells and the development of the nervous system. Proteins derived from beef are easy to digest and provide essential amino acids that help build muscles.
For its part, iron helps many vital functions in the body including sustaining energy and focus, facilitating digestion, strengthening the immune system, and regulating body temperature. Beef contains about 3 milligrams of iron for every 100 gram serving, 20-30% of which is easily absorbed by the body. In contrast, iron derived from vegetables has an absorption rate of only 1.5%.
Contrary to the belief that beef is fattening, in truth, it only contains 120-140 calories for every 100 gram serving. This is not much considering the recommended calorie intake for an adult is 2,000 calories per day. A portion of beef contains the same calories as a thin slice of cheese.
Eating Well Magazine and numerous publications have hailed Mediterranean cuisine as the healthiest diet in the world of which beef is an important component. The Spaniards have one of the longest lifespans, 81.57 years, compared to Filipinos who live an average of only 68.96 years.
So when will Spanish beef be available locally?
The commercial office of the Spanish embassy submitted their application to the National Meat Inspection Services (NMIS), a unit of the Department of Agriculture, back in 2017. The Spanish application was recently shortlisted to move forward. This month, a mission from the DA will travel to Spain to inspect 18 establishments including meat processing plants, cold storage facilities, and slaughterhouses. It took a while to schedule the visit as the DA prefers to conduct its inspection during the season when sanitation deficiencies are prevalent.
Should the DA find everything in order, a Certificate of System Accreditation will be awarded to Spain. This will open the way for the importation of Spanish beef.
As someone who has personally seen the class leading slaughterhouses and meat processing plants of Spain, I have no doubt that they will pass with flying colors. I just hope that the DA will grant permission to import Spanish beef before December. If so, we Filipinos can enjoy a gloriously delicious and healthy Christmas feast with Spanish beef as the star of the Noche Buena dinner.
Andrew J. Masigan is an economist.