Banned Ulster beef back pronto, says junior minister
By Philip Clarke
NORTHERN Irish beef will be back on the world market within weeks rather than months according to junior farm minister Lord Donoughue.
Speaking just minutes after EU farm ministers voted in favour of lifting the beef ban for certified herds in the province, Lord Donoughue pointed out that EU inspectors would have to pay another visit to Northern Ireland to check, amongst other things, the procedures for keeping certified beef separate from other meat. Part of the agreement is for exports to be handled only by designated abattoirs and packers.
In the vote on Monday, 11 member states approved the scheme, which will allow the sale of deboned beef from cattle aged between 6 and 30 months reared in herds with no cases of BSE for at least eight years. Luxembourg and Spain abstained while Germany and Belgium voted against the proposal.
Northern Irelands farm minister Lord Dubs warned it would take some time for the meat trade to win back its former markets, predicting only 50% would be regained in the next year. "Market conditions have been through a radical change since the export ban was imposed on UK beef," he said. "Consumption of beef has gone down in most European states, previous customers have been sourcing beef from elsewhere and the strength of sterling has a major impact on market pricing."
But Lord Donoughue described the vote as "the most positive signal to livestock farmers throughout the UK, who have suffered the harsh consequences of BSE for the past two years".
Government efforts would now focus on a date-based scheme – to allow exports of beef from animals born after Aug 1, 1996, when the total ban on meat and bonemeal took effect – which would have wider benefits for the whole UK.
NFU president Ben Gill described the farm ministers decision as "extremely encouraging for livestock farmers across the UK who know their product meets the highest standards."
It signalled an opening of the door towards the complete removal of the beef export ban. The union would now redouble its efforts to win a speedy approval of the date-based scheme.
Scottish NFU president George Lyon said the relief for certified herds in Northern Ireland would bring little direct help to Scotlands beef producers. "But what it will do is clear the way for our date-based scheme to make progress," he said.
• See Stock and Sales, page 35, for the market implications.