8 March 2002

Sheepmeat exports do well after end of F&M restrictions

By Philip Clarke

EXPORTS of sheepmeat have made an encouraging start since foot-and-mouth restrictions were lifted late last year and prices should continue to benefit as the new season unfolds.

Welsh lamb exporter Owen Owen of Cig Mon Group said his carcass trade to France was already up to 5000 units a week – more than half the level he was doing before F&M.

The real boost to trade came at the end of January when the protocols that demanded all sheep for export had to be inspected by a vet on farm were relaxed. "Until then I was shifting more paperwork than sheep," he said.

The uplift in exports had helped farm-gate prices, he added, though not as much as some had hoped for. "Many Continental buyers had already taken cover for the winter from other suppliers."

Despite this, Mr Owen has also shipped carcases to Italy and was at this weeks Alimentaria Food Fair in Barcelona looking to secure business to the Spanish trade.

That is a seasonal trade with British lamb helping to fill a slot in the market from July to November, before Spanish production comes on stream in December.

In the past, Spain has taken up to 9000t, or £20m worth, of mainly light lamb carcases. But in the year before F&M the figure was more like 4000t due to the strength of the £. That compares with 68,000t that goes to France.

Regaining market share will not be easy, admits the Meat and Livestock Commission, which had a big presence at Alimentaria.

The sharp price rises in most Continental markets, triggered by the export ban on British sheep last year, put a check on consumption. That has yet to be rekindled even though prices had since slipped, said MLC export manager Peter Hardwick.

Spanish buyers at the show also pointed to the different colour and texture of grass-fed British lamb compared with home-produced, grain-fed product. BSE and, to a lesser extent, F&M have also dented Spanish consumer confidence, said Ramon Prior Castell, director of importer Carns Prior.

He anticipated taking 200-300 carcasses a week from the UK in July and August. But it would be many months before he reached his former trade levels of 800-1000 a week.

Don Thomas, managing director of Welsh Lamb and Beef Promotions, said trade had got off to an encouraging start.

"If we can get back to 70% of our former trade this year we will be doing well," he said.

Bob Bansback, MLC strategy director, stressed the importance of exports to UK farmers. Had exports been allowed last year sheep prices would have been 15% higher in the UK and pig values 8-10% more, he said. &#42