By Robert Harris

PROSPECTS for beef exports have been boosted after a deal which secures a vital outlet for Northern Irish beef and news of mounting expectations that Brussels will allow the rest of the UK to resume exports in July.

Linden Foods (formerly Granville-Milltown), the only Northern Irish abattoir to resume exports, permitted from last June under the provinces export certified herd scheme, has struck a deal with Albert Heijn, Hollands leading supermarket chain, to put the regions beef back on its shopping list.

Albert Heijn, which once stocked only Northern Irish beef, has relied on Dutch beef and Argentine exports since March 1996 when UK exports were banned.

This deal, says Linden Foods director Richard Moore, sends a clear signal to other retail buyers in northern Europe and should help to overcome resistance to British beef.

“It has reopened the door. Albert Heijn has made it widely known it will stock our beef. If it is that confident, I think others will follow.”

Until now, Linden Foods exports have been running at 10-30t a week, about 10% of business. This compares with pre-BSE levels of 30t a day, says Mr Moore.

How much of that loss this agreement will restore is difficult to predict, since Albert Heijn retains the option to buy beef from Holland, Argentina and the Irish Republic.

But Mr Moore predicts demand will outstrip supply unless the company can move away from the highly restrictive ECHS into the UK-wide date-based export scheme.

Only about 45% of Northern Irish cattle are eligible for the former scheme, compared with an estimated 70% for the latter, says Mr Moore.

That is why the company was one of three abattoirs to open its doors to EU inspectors last month to allow its suitability to participate in date-based beef exports to be assessed.

The others were Kepak Buchan in Scotland, and Cornwall-based St Merryn Meat.

There is mounting speculation within the industry that the inspectors report, due in about two weeks, will allow exports to restart soon.

“We have been hearing positive noises from member states over the past few days,” says Peter Hardwick at the Meat and Livestock Commissions Brussels office.

The NFUs Betty Lee, also in Brussels, says: “The inspectors had a long list to cover, including meat plants, farms, record keeping and dam traceability. But it could still be finalised quickly.”

The National Beef Association is even more bullish. “We have been told that if all goes well the DBES will be discussed at the June meeting of the standing veterinary committee and a positive recommendation will be passed on to agriculture ministers in July,” says chief executive, Robert Forster.

He believes UK beef could appear on a wider range of export markets by July, with higher volumes “almost certainly” on the move by the end of September.

But the Pound has strengthened 40% since exports were banned and remains a substantial barrier, warns Mr Moore. Linden Foods has lost £500,000 since September on exports and sees little chance of recouping that quickly. “This deal is not about profit, it is about strategy,” he says.