29 May 1998

Delays are still likely before NIbeef gets going

By Philip Clarke

Europe editor

EXPORTS of beef from Northern Ireland are unlikely to resume immediately, despite this weeks announcement that the ban is to be lifted next Monday (June 1).

"Weve been keeping in touch with all our former customers, but we will not know the true strength of the market until we actually get in there," says Craig Dumigan, business development manager for Granville Meat, the only processor in line for an export licence.

But even if contracts are signed in the first few days, there will inevitably be delays as the company sources certified animals and sorts out stamps, labels and other logistical details. "We will not swing into action on day one," says Mr Dumigan.

Rebuilding the market will certainly be a long haul, agrees David Ritchie, Livestock and Meat Commission economist. Initially, Northern Irish beef will be destined for the commodity end of the trade, to buyers in South Africa, eastern Europe and the Middle East. "Supermarkets will be second on the list," predicts Mr Richie. "They will not want to be in there in the initial stages, with the TV cameras running and the flash guns going off."

Continental buyers such as France will be even lower down the list due to consumer hostility to British beef, while Mediterranean countries such as Italy will not be interested, since their preference is for beef on the bone.

Northern Ireland will therefore have to earn its place in the market on price, though the recent weakening of sterling should help in that respect.

"Getting exports back will at least bring a degree of competition to the market, where at present there is none," says Mr Ritchie. "It will also enable a wider variety of finished cattle to be sold."

It remains to be seen how many cattle will go for export. Before the ban was introduced in March 1996, Granville Meat slaughtered up to 50,000 a year, shipping 75% of them outside the UK. The province as a whole sold 56% of its beef overseas, in a trade worth over £200m.

Government economists reckon it could win back 50% of this in the first year. But that will depend on other plants joining Granville Meat. Initially three abattoirs put themselves forward for export licences. But two of them dropped out when they realised just how restrictive the certified herd scheme was going to be.

Northern Irish beef will have to claw its way back into the market on price.