The Kobe beef of Isan takes off
Sakon Nakhon's premium Pon Yang Kham is making a name for itself with meat lovers, writes Wichit Chantanusornsiri
Japan is famous for Kobe beef, beloved by foodies for its distinct marbling and melt-in-your-mouth tenderness. Thailand also has its own premium-grade beef, Pon Yang Kham, which has become a household name among meat lovers.
Grade A5 Kobe is the most expensive beef, with a price tag of 5,000 baht per kilogramme, while Australian beef of the same grade as Thai premium beef is priced at 1,500 baht per kg, and Thailand's Pon Yang Kham sells for a humbler 1,160 baht per kg.
Pon Yang Kham beef is branded as Thailand's best-quality beef, produced by Pon Yang Kham Breeding Cooperatives, which was incorporated in 1980 in Pon Yang Kham village in Sakon Nakhon province.
The cooperatives, with assistance from the French government in advice and breeding stock, has developed its own cattle breed by using two of the best French breeds -- Charolais and Limousin -- to interbreed with local cattle. Pon Yang Kham cattle has been sold for nearly 40 years, but the beef only gained clout among connoisseurs less than a decade ago, when a restaurant on Nuanchan Road in Bangkok named itself after Pon Yang Kham beef.
Pon Yang Kham cattle are fed with chemical-free, natural feed as members grow their own grass for feeding cattle, while the cooperative provides members with a 12% crude protein concentrate, which consists of cassava, rice bran, palm kernel meal, molasses, urea, salt, shell, limestone and rock phosphate. No growth hormones, antibiotics, animal products, imported feed ingredients or artificial vitamins are allowed.
Moreover, the origins of Pon Yang Kham beef can be traced back through the food traceability system.
Pon Yang Kham Breeding Cooperatives Rangsit Center deputy manager Samorn Phuphasri said the cooperatives' sales amount to around 1 billion baht a year and Pon Yang Kham beef is also sold through 100 authorised dealers, including modern trade stores.
Once the Tajima-gyu cow that Japan gifted to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn was slaughtered and went through the same dry-ageing process as Pon Yang Kham beef, the Japanese cow's wagyu marble score was higher than Thai beef's.
However, Pon Yang Kham meat was found to be more delicious when steaks from the cows were cooked by the same chef, she said.
Morakot Pitharat, senior executive vice-president of the Bank for Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives (BAAC), said the state-backed farm bank will help market Thai premier beef through agricultural cooperatives by providing a traceability system to ensure quality and certifying the high grade beef.
Around 30,000 Thai premium cattle per year are supplied to the market, far below consumption of 1 million cattle a year, he said, noting that demand for Thai premium grade beef expands around 10% a year and demand could be higher still, but is impeded by marketing.
Many eateries have used the Pon Yang Kham brand, even though they do no use the cooperative's beef and this has damaged the brand, he said.
It is necessary for Pon Yang Kham's dealers to jointly rebuild its reputation, he suggested.
Mr Morakot said there are around 800,000 cattle farmers raising 4.4 million cows for meat, of which 1 million is for domestic consumption.
The BAAC has lent 81.2 billion baht in total to 682,000 beef cattle farmers and another 10 billion to 100,000 farmers who are a part of the beef cattle supply chain, growing feed such as napier grass, cassava and maize.
A threat to Thai beef?
Beef Cluster Cooperative Ltd chairman Wibul Waiyasurasingha voiced concerns that Australian beef imports to Thailand will rise substantially after the beef tariffs are waived under free trade agreements (FTAs) in 2020, and this will take a toll on Thai premium beef.
Under the FTA, the 5% imported beef tariff will be scrapped in 2020 and the quota of 1,400 tonnes per year will be waived in 2021.
Moreover, beef importers have branded all imported meats from Australia as Australian beef, even when they are not premium grade, which could steal market share from Thai premium beef as Thais are not aware of the quality of Thai premium beef, he said.
"We are not asking for money, but we want high-ranking government officials to try the beef themselves and tell people that it is good, like they do with the case of wine. Without marketing, it's difficult to sell. Those who are in our feeding operation are unemployed, the elderly and disabled," he said.
He said that his cooperative, established seven years ago, supplies 2,000 beef cattle to market under the Max Beef brand and fetches around 250 million baht in annual sales.
Feeding beef cattle is a high-class art, with different rearing needs during different stages of the life cycle, he said.
"Like bringing up a human baby, calves must stay with their mothers and we must be careful with what they eat and how they run. When they are adult cattle, we must feed them molasses to produce sweet-smelling meat," he said.
His farm also produces an abundance of food, which is cheaper than transporting food to feed the cattle.
Mr Wibul's farm is in Rayong province, where pineapple skin and roots and oil palm meal that are used to feed cattle are plentiful. His farm uses an evaporative housing system that can control temperature and moisture levels.
Thailand's tropical climate means that the cost of cooling down temperatures in cattle housing is lower than parallel costs in Japan, where warming cattle housing requires higher energy costs.
Mr Wibul said research is also crucial in developing cattle-raising methods and the Thailand Research Fund has played a great role in providing research, such as bacteria for fibre digestion that improves marbling, to local cattle farmers.