The French believe beef from older cows is Choice grade

by Allan Nation

When you think of French food what do you think of? Over fattened geese? Snails? Heavy sauces? Coq au vin?

Paris native, Jerome Chateau, said that a far more typical French meal would be steak and fries. (They aren't called French fries in France.)

He said the French are by far and away the biggest beef consumers in Europe and treasure a tender, flavorful, grilled steak. The only major difference between French beef eating tradition and North America is that the French tend to eat their grilled steaks rarer and are more lavish with the use of salt and pepper.

Chateau said the wide-spread American belief that meat from older animals has to be tough strikes most Frenchmen as incredibly naive. In fact, given the choice - as they are - the extremely picky French actually prefer their beef to be from older animals.

Only 11 percent of France's internal beef consumption comes from animals less than two years of age and only two percent is from young males (mostly as dairy veal).

Eighty seven percent of internally consumed beef is grass finished and 75 percent of French beef consumption is from culled cows - of both beef and dairy breeds.

Chateau said the vast majority of feedlot finished animals are exported with most of them going to the Middle East.

He said that while the vast majority of European cows are dairy, in France beef cows make up 50 percent of the national herd. (Beef cows are 75 percent of the USA's national cow herd.)

The average size French beef farm is 23 cows. (The same as Texas.)

He said there were dozens of breeds of cattle in France. Each is bred to work in the highly varying climatic regions of the country. These adapted cattle traditionally take that region's name as the breed's name. For example, Charolais, Tarentaise, Normande, and Simmental.

He said France and Germany ship a lot of beef back and forth because the French prefer their cuts from the hindquarter and the Germans from the front quarter.

Dual-purpose beef-dairy breeds are another French tradition. Chateau said that French dairymen will typically voluntarily cull 30 percent of their cow herd each year for beef sales. (French dairy production is restricted by quota. There is no restriction on beef production.)

He said he believed the primary cause of beef toughness was stress on the animal. He said the French are very cognizant of this fact and genetically select for docile and quiet animals.

French dairy cows that are to be sold for beef are allowed to graze and fatten for at least 90 days after being dried off. He said a typical practice was to dry the cows off in the winter and sell them as beef the following summer after they had fattened on the lush spring grass.

French cattle are graded on carcass conformation and exterior fat cover. Marbling is not seen as important to beef quality in France.

At the abattoir French cattle are individually penned and never mixed with strange cattle. Free choice water is available to them at all times including during road transport.

Many abattoirs play Classical music in their holding areas to calm the cattle handlers and possibly the cattle.


Labeled beef has become a big item and many French supermarkets will no longer stock commodity beef. In 2001, 42 percent of the beef eaten in Paris was labeled.

He said the oldest labeled beef brand is the Normande breed label. This highly successful beef label is 95 percent from culled dairy cows. He said the average age of the cows used for the premium priced beef was six years. The Normande beef label requires:

1. The cattle have to have been on one farm for at least four months before slaughter.

2. The cattle must spend at least eight months of the year on pasture. 3. The cattle must not spend over four hours on the truck to the abattoir.

4. The cattle must not stand for over 24 hours at the abattoir before slaughter.

5. The cattle are to be kept in individual stalls with free-choice water.

6. The cattle must be handled with a minimum of disruption.

7. The beef must be aged for seven days as a carcass or for 12 days in plastic wrap as individual pieces.

Chateau said that as French awareness of the benefits of CLA and Omega 3 has grown the beef labels have tended to require more of the animal's year to be spent on pasture.

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