What of Pedigree
Rare Breeds Trust of Australia
Cherry Ripe is Australia's most awarded food writer. A journalist, broadcaster and author of five books including Goodbye Culinary Cringe, Australia The Beautiful Cookbook and Ripe Enough? Published in March 1999. For thirteen years she has been a foodwriter for The Australian newspaper.
These days with so much 'infusion' (mixing of breeds) going on there is great variation in meat quality within what were once pure breeds.
Take the case of Herefords. With their distinctive red coats and white faces, Herefords once were-and probably are still-the most numerous breed of cattle in the world. They were one of the first breeds ever to have a herd book-a register of pedigree animals. Yet in 1996 the British Rare Breeds Survival Trust-whose patron is Prince Charles-announced that it had added 'Hereford cattle to the list of British endangered breeds'. But how can a breed-of which there are purportedly 100 million in the world-be facing extinction? The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) deems a breed 'critical' if there are fewer than 100 breeding females left, and 'endangered' if there are fewer than 1000.) The Trust had managed to identify only 350 genuine traditional pedigree female Herefords in Britain.
Although in the UK some 1500 horned (as opposed to Poll) Herefords are registered as pedigree cattle each year, of those less than a tenth are of pure descent. So what's been going on?
Since 1974 Britain has been importing North American bloodlines, largely in the form of semen. The resulting beasts had longer legs than the traditional British Herefords. It's now believed (and corroborated by DNA testing) that the Americans had achieved this by 'infusing'-a euphemism for crossing-their Herefords (or Her-fords as they incorrectly insist on calling them) with larger Continental breeds like Simmental and Limousin. After several generations, their offspring were allowed into the American (pedigree) herd book, which supposedly only contains pure bred cattle. (That after all is the purpose of such a register.) Then in Britain too, the progeny resulting from introduced bloodlines were allowed to be registered as 'pure bred' in the British herd book.
Thanks to these 'infused' (read 'crossbred') bloodlines, in not much more than a decade, many British Herefords grew nearly half a metre taller-impossible through natural selection alone. Few British breeders resisted the temptation for bigger cattle. There were commercial pressures-a fashion for larger and leaner carcasses, compounded by subsidies based on carcass size: the bigger the carcass the greater the financial return.
Two decades later, what were you left with? A total of only 500 genuine traditional 'straight-bred' Herefords in the whole of Britain which haven't been diluted with 'infused' North American bloodlines.
A similar situation has occurred here. The Australian Hereford Society estimates that possibly 80 per cent of the pedigree Herefords in this country are of American descent, that is from 'infused' bloodlines. However breeders of traditional English
But it's not just Herefords. The Aberdeen Angus may be in an even worse position with only 70 'pure' breeding cows left in the UK. The Queen Mother apparently had the last herd of pure bred Angus in Britain, but capitulated and allowed the herd
It is claimed that a similar fate has befallen most of the traditional British breeds in Australia, from Shorthorns to Devons and Galloways.
In declaring Herefords 'endangered', the Rare Breeds Survival Trust implied that most modern Herefords are in fact crossbreds: 'The 'new' Hereford, derived from imported stock, has acquired characteristics more typical of Continental beef breeds'.
But why should we care if the 'new' Hereford is closer genetically to a Simmental, Limousin-or even Blonde d'Aquitaine-than to a traditional pure bred Hereford? One of the Hereford breed's strengths is that they are great 'grass converters'. (It's worth remembering that the spread of mad cow disease-Bovine Spongiform ncephalopathy-was not the result of cattle eating grass!)
Continental breeds on the other hand are not only not good foragers, but they need more protein and grain to fatten them up, as feedlotters here have found out to their cost.
More significantly, maximum hybrid vigour comes from the crossing of two pure lines. What happens when there are no pure lines left to cross? And doesn't infusion make a nonsense of breed-based marketing campaigns?
© Cherry Ripe