QMS hails 'positive start'

The first UK beef exports to be sent to other EU countries for 10 years were scheduled as Meat Trades Journal went to press.

Guy Attenborough, head of communications at the Meat and Livestock Commission, said a truck load of Yorkshire beef was heading for Greece on the first available sailing.

Attenborough added that Southern Counties would follow soon after, with ABP not far behind. North of the border, a spokeswoman for Quality Meat Scotland confirmed that there were consignments of beef leaving from a number of different plants. She said: "This is a very positive start so soon after the dismantling of trading restrictions."

Maurice McCartney of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said they welcomed the 'normalisation' of the market: "It's very good news for farmers and processors. Exports are likely to start with a trickle then volume will build. It's 10 years since people have traded, and although they would have kept communications open, somebody else has been supplying Europe and they're not going to want to give that business away. It will be very hard work to rebuild trade, but it's a huge prize."

However, the English Beef and Lamb Executive (EBLEX) is already on the case. Chairman John Cross said: "We know that winning this trade back from existing suppliers is going to be damned hard work - but we're already tackling the challenge."

A programme of promotional activity is well under way in key overseas markets, added Cross. This is supported at home by a number of missions welcoming buyers to see England's beef chain in action.

Ten years ago, Britain's beef exports amounted to 274,000 tonnes, worth £520m, a year. Its biggest customers were in France, Italy, the Irish Republic, South Africa and the Netherlands .

Today, EBLEX reports that high-quality steer and heifer beef are expected to be in strong demand on the Continent, with many importers already indicating that they will welcome back the products. Although there will be some retail opportunities, it adds, the bulk of initial demand is expected to come from the foodservice sector.

In addition, EBLEX says young bull producers should be able to find a range of outlets for their products, including 'O' grade bull carcases to Spain, 'E' and 'U' grade to Greece, and 'R' to Portugal.

Demand for English cow meat (mainly pistolas and carcases) is expected to be high in markets such as France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Central European countries such as Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania have also indicated their willingness to buy English cow meat. However, price will be the deciding factor for these countries in the short term.

Alastair Donaldson, executive manager at the Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers, said the shortage of beef in Europe will present good opportunities for older beef exports. "Some members are ready to start exporting now," he said. "But others will wait to see how things go."

Donaldson was concerned, however, about the potential drawbacks of the UK's use of Sterling: "The pound benefited exports in 1996, but it won't now because the pound-euro conversion value is not as good as it was then."

And EBLEX has warned that the resumption of beef exports was only the first phase of recovery. After this, the process would be "long and arduous, as it would involve ­negotiations country by country."

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