Best foot forward

With exports growing and optimism abounding, the beef industry is at the best it's been for years. Chloe Smith reports

British beef has gone through a lot in the past 10 years, but the resumption of exports in May this year, and the lifting of the over-thirty-month (OTM) slaughter ban last November is starting to close the wounds of a countryside and industry ravaged by BSE and foot & mouth disease (FMD).

UK beef consumption is continuing to grow and is at its highest level since 1990. Retail sales for the last year were up and continue to rise, with sales of fresh and frozen beef in the UK higher by 3% for the year ending July 2006. However, according to Eblex, although total sales in England were up 4%, expenditure was up by just 2%, which has been blamed on heavy discounting by the multiple retailers.

Minced beef accounts for more fresh and frozen beef sales than any other kind (nearly half), and the amount sold has increased by 6.8% in the year ending July 2006, according to market analysts TNS Worldpanel. Countering this increase, sales of roasting joints fell by 3% overall, and retail prices have dropped in an effort to compensate. On a more positive note, the World Cup effect shook up the beef sector, with sales of burgers and grills increasing by 33% during the four weeks ending 18 June.

July did not follow the year's trend however, and saw a slump in beef sales, thought to be down to the hot weather. This in turn led to a slight reduction in prime cattle and cull cattle prices, which are likely to be restored to former levels as demand increases during the autumn.

The big story in the beef sector this year is, of course, the reopening of the export market and the feeling of optimism it has spread throughout the whole industry. At the moment, exports of beef are modest but growing. Andrew Garvey, head of marketing at EBLEX says: "Since the ban lifted four months ago in May, cow beef and prime beef exports from English abbatoirs have shown good growth and are already up to 900t each week."

These are healthy figures, and there is widespread confidence that the industry target of 30,000t for 2006 will be met or, better still, exceeded.

Eblex forecasts that exports are set to increase steadily over the next two years because of strong demand for both quality prime beef and manufacturing beef in the EU market. It is just as well, then, that cow beef is once again legal. The repeal of the OTM ban, a condition of opening the export markets, has meant that more beef is available.

Although the MLC forecast that >>

>> this year's prime cattle slaughterings will decline by 3% compared with 2005, the extra 440,000 cows hitting the market means that total beef and veal production should be up 14% to 865,000t. This continues an upward trend over the last few years.

Garvey is pleased with the way the reintroduction of OTM beef, a major change, has been absorbed and integrated by the industry: "The continuing shortage of manufacturing-grade beef across the UK and the EU helped to achieve a remarkably seamless return of cow beef to domestic and export markets."

Garvey thinks the growth of the export market and rising consumption of beef bode well for all, from farmer to retailer: "All indications suggest there is a positive future for the beef industry," he says.