UK: NFU report hopes to beef up valuable red meat industry

THERE is still “much to be achieved” in building up export markets for UK beef, according to a new report.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) this week published a report which holds out the prospect of future growth for the industry, now clawing its way back from the devastating financial impact of the now eradicated UK BSE disease outbreak, which effectively resulted in the British herd being all but wiped out in a huge cull. A European Union export ban was finally lifted six years ago.

The report, entitled Bullish Prospects: A vision for the beef industry, sets out how it thinks the industry should capitalise on a growing demand for red meat, although it stresses that the document should not be seen as a blueprint for such a diverse sector.

Suffolk-based farmer Andrew Blenkiron, estate director at the Euston Estate, near Thetford, was involved in drawing up the report as a member of the NFU’s national livestock commmittee.

He believes there is the potential to build up the UK beef industry to pre-BSE days but that it would take “probably a decade” to get there, given that the volume of supply would need to be built up.

“It’s a slow old process,” he said.

The report reasons that with the world population on the rise, demand for red meat will also increase, and as a strong grass-growing nation, the UK is “ideally placed” to respond to bullish market signals.

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“The beef industry has a positive tale to tell, becoming increasingly environmentally efficient with high standards of animal welfare,” it says.

The majority of UK beef is consumed in the UK, it says, but the main drivers of UK beef prices over the last year have come from increased access to international markets, coupled with a decline in challenge from other countries due to a fall in cattle numbers, it adds. In 2011, 935,000 tonnes of UK beef was joined by 381,000 tonnes of imported beef. Out of that, 1,142,000 tonnes was consumed here while 174,000 tonnes was exported, according to official figures.

The Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland are the largest export markets. Ireland is also the main beef exporter into the UK, sending more than all other countries combined. Most of the exported beef is subjected to more processing before being sold on to other countries.

Exports to other countries are up, the report says, and China and Russia present “strong opportunities in the future”. If these exports could be achieved, it would add more value into the chain, according to the study.

But farmers will have to wrestle with volatile exchange rates, rising feed prices, problems with red tape, the high costs of TB infections and the ever-present threat of third country beef imports, with TB one of the biggest challenges facing the cattle industry at present, it says.