Sit in on one of Europe’s main trade bodies, the European Livestock and Meat Trading Union (UECBV) Import Working Group, and the traders around the table will be from all corners of the European Union. They will all be men, with one exception – Margaret Boanas. The woman with the unusual surname – the maiden name she has kept through more than 30 years in the meat trade and 26 years of marriage – is by no means the only female in today’s British meat industry, of course, but she is almost certainly one of (if not the) most experienced traders in the still male-dominated cut-and-thrust world of meat buying and selling.
She is vice-president of the International Meat Trade Association (IMTA) and, until relatively recently, was the only woman member of that body. Her involvement in UECBV’s import working group makes her the only female meat trader in Europe who regularly wheels and deals on behalf of the industry in the corridors of power in Brussels. As a trader at Kent-based Transoceanic Meat, she sources meat from all parts of the world for the UK manufacturing and foodservice sectors.
Boanas joined the industry in the 1970s, just as the focus of trade was shifting from the Commonwealth to the rapidly developing EEC, as it was then, with Britain as its newest member. Since then, the shift in power and decision-making has gradually moved from the governments of member states to the European Commission itself in Brussels.
Boanas says the trade is changing again today. “We’ve gone through the era of joining the EU. We’re now into global trading. The first 10 years of this century will be viewed as the beginning of globalisation,” she says. “But there’s no agenda for it; we’re in freefall. Unlike membership of the EU, where we had a rulebook, globalisation has crept up on us and the rulebook is being written as we go along.”
With the Doha round of World Trade Organisation talks on a new global trade deal stalled, Peter Mandelson having quit his job as EU trade commissioner, and the views of the incoming new American president, Barack Obama, as yet largely unknown but likely to be key to any possible way forward, there is a real danger that such a moribund situation will lead to bilateral agreements – to the potential detriment of everyone else.
It is in this heady mix of international politics that Boanas plays her part, in an IMTA team that includes director Liz Murphy and president Doug Brydges. Boanas has not dealt directly with Mandelson, but is in regular touch with key officials in his former European Trade Commission department on issues of importance to the British industry. “Often what started as a 15-minute meeting will turn into an hour,” she says. Networking with Commission vets and with other important players, for example the South Americans, is also important. “Commission people want to listen to people at the coal face – those who buy and sell meat” says Boanas. “They don’t want individual state views, they want a European view. The working groups hammer that out and it’s not always easy.”
The key to progress, she says, is to be accurate and not exaggerated with the facts during negotiations, and not to be nationalistic or protectionist. UECBV deals with a range of political and economic issues, veterinary and food safety matters, and international trade. “With growing globalisation it’s inevitable that international companies will become much bigger, so there’s a need to have strong representation for small to medium-sized businesses to ensure that they aren’t ignored. Good trade associations can provide this; that is why I give so much time to IMTA.”
Boanas joined Transoceanic Meat in 1984. Formed in the 1970s, it trades a range of meats in EU and third countries. It imports beef from South America and is one of the biggest dealers of beef in Europe. It also cuts, packs, freezes and prepares pork under BRC/EFSIS approval for many of the major UK users, produces minced and diced meats for further processing, and bulk-tempers and freezes meat at its on-site cold-store and plant in Chesterfield.
Like so many in the trade, Boanas comes from a family with a history in meat and farming. Her father was a butcher in Hessle, Hull, and trained as a public health inspector after the Second World War. Her mother ran the NFU’s Whitby office for many years. Today, Boanas is married with two teenage daughters.
After studying HND business studies at Sheffield Polytechnic she joined Batchelors, then part of Unilever. There were three vacancies for jobs – with the meat, packaging and raw materials buyers. She chose meat. “Packaging is just thrown away. The meat trade seemed much more real to me,” she says.
“In life we all have significant people who shape our futures and one of mine was Basil Benson, the meat buyer for whom I worked. After a few weeks he sent me out in my wellies and white coat to find out that the trade doesn’t happen in offices, but in abattoirs.
“He sent me off to visit meat plants, such as Duggins, Jarrett’s, Cobden’s, poultry producers Webb & Webb, and Webb’s of Bradford, all great names in our industry, sadly many of them now gone. I learnt a lot from them all and no allowance was made for me. I was taken from the lairage through the killing line to the boning hall.
“I was soon given the task of documenting the total stock of beef, which was running at about three months’ cover, approximately 1,000 tonnes of predominantly Australian and some African beef. It’s a sign of how things have changed. Today you’d be lucky to have three days’ stock.”
It was when Boanas tried to further her career elsewhere in the late 1970s that she experienced the glass ceiling. “There was one job interview where I was told that I would be far too disruptive, being a woman in an office full of men. All I could do was laugh in his face.”
John Wilson, then managing director of CDB Meats, gave her an opportunity. She moved to London and started work at the company’s Smithfield office on the sales desk. “The camaraderie, banter, breakfasts and lunches were memorable, particularly for a young woman like me from the north of England,” she says.
During this time, Boanas broadened her interest in the EEC. “I remember attending one of the very first MLC briefing meetings in Boundary House, where a young Bob Bansback tried to help 10 or 12 of us make some sense of trading within and outside the EEC.”
Then, the job of a meat trader was simply buying and selling meat, no more. Today the industry is much more complex. “The supply chain is more critical now than it was when I first started working. The volume of chilled product in all species has increased dramatically. There are far more import quotas operating, and each one has its own, slightly different rulebook.
“The other major issue we face today in a global trading market is the incidence of animal health issues and the impact they can have on business.”
It is these types of issues that makes IMTA’s role in Europe so important to the wellbeing of the British trade, she says, adding that the importance of the role is not always appreciated, nor indeed is the role of imported meat in the British supply chain. “Our farmers deserve a fair deal, but don’t keep knocking imports,” she says.
With the transition towards a global trading environment, expert international traders and skilled minders of British interests at European level are likely to be even more needed in the years ahead. The international dimension to her job is clearly one Boanas enjoys. So it is likely she will continue in her role in Brussels for some time to come, trying, of course, not to be too disruptive.