Beef industry gathers to tackle ‘perfect storm’

A “perfect storm” was responsible for the crisis affecting the beef industry as leaders and politicians gathered to find solutions with farming minister George Eustice this week.

All involved agreed a combination of high UK cattle supply, depressed domestic demand, higher imports and lower exports were to blame and a number of actions to tackle the problems were agreed.

Firstly, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) and the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) agreed to work towards a voluntary code to increase the transparency of processor Ts and Cs and the notice period of change in specifications.

Charles Sercombe, NFU livestock board chairman, said: “There was a general view that it’s unfair to change specifications when there is no notice period. This has affected the crisis because it’s very difficult for farmers to produce what processors want when they have done something to specification and then that specification changes overnight – it devalues the animals.”

BMPA director Stephen Rossides said: “It’s reasonable that a processor should say, ‘This is how I do business, this is how you do business with me, and if I change this, I should give reasonable notice’.”

Another outcome was that retailers have been asked to get behind British beef to help shift the backlog. They have been urged to help consumers differentiate between British beef and imported beef by not mixing them on the shelves and by improved labelling.

Rossides said: “The packaging between Irish and British beef looks the same, it’s in the same area and it’s difficult to see the difference. If retailers say they are committed to selling British – and after horsegate people want to buy British – then let’s make it easier for the consumer.”

The summit also saw Defra express its desire to export more beef. Japan has been identified as a big market, and a memorandum of understanding with China has been agreed. Ways in which producers could increase efficiency and performance were also discussed, with ideas such genetics and grassland management brought up.

Rossides and Sercombe agreed that the summit was good food for thought. The former added that supplies were due to tighten: “The marketplace is going to change and producers will soon be feeling much better about life.”  

Farming minister George Eustice said: “The summit brought together representatives from across the food and farming industry to ensure that we have a sustainable and profitable British beef industry for the future.

“We identified ways in which producers and processors can work together to better anticipate changes in supply and demand, open new export markets and increase the market share of UK beef in this country.”

However, Norman Bagley, policy director at AIMS, was critical of what was achieved at the meeting. He said: “They dealt with long-term issues, but was there anything at the summit that’s going to alleviate the short term? For all the good and genuine intentions, I don’t think it will make any meaningful difference to the price in the next six months.

“If retailers are selling anywhere from 50-65% of the carcase as mince, then this raises serious questions over the future of the suckler herd. Why would you need a suckler herd just to produce mince for the retailers who are fighting to the death to see who can sell it the cheapest? Farmers are already voting with their feet and who can blame them? The risk of this has been seriously underestimated by all concerned.”

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