By Robert Harris and Philip Clarke

BEEF industry experts have welcomed this weeks lifting of the export ban, but warn that regaining lost market share will be a struggle.

Exports are unlikely to start before March, and it could be much longer before significant volumes are shipped abroad.

One problem is the small number of cattle which will pass the date-based export scheme requirements. Besides the well-known age and deboning requirements, another condition attached by Brussels could halve the number of potential qualifiers.

In the proposal, formally adopted by the European Commission on Wednesday (25 November), farmers must supply “verified, positive, official evidence” that dams have survived for six months after their export calves are born. “The farmer cannot just say the mother was alive,” says Stephen Rossides, head of livestock at the NFU.

No single database

Unfortunately, there is no single database containing the evidence – only animals born after 28 September this year are included in the cattle traceability scheme. Instead, the ministry will have to trawl through several other measures.

Expected success rate is put at 50% at best, and the unit providing these cross-checks is unlikely to run at full speed until the summer.

The NFU is lobbying Government for interim measures. To ease the burden it is also asking the ministry to back-load passport-bearing cattle (born after 1 July, 1996) on to its cattle traceability database. Failing that, it wants the ministry to accept vets evidence, and allow NMR data to be used.

“Date-based conditions are highly restrictive,” agrees Peter Scott of the Federation of Fresh Meat Wholesalers. The small number of qualifying animals has limited abattoir interest, given that businesses wishing to export will have to dedicate whole plants. Cattle not meeting the date-based export scheme requirements cannot be handled on the same premises.

“I do not think any large plant could dedicate yet. Only companies prepared to blow money for quite a time will be interested.”

A members survey backs this up; just six to 10 abattoirs expressed interest in exporting beef, compared to the 60-70 which had taken part before the ban.

It will also be difficult to regain lost market share. The Pound has gained about 30% against the deutschmark since the beef export ban was imposed in March 1996, making it hard for the UK to compete on price, says Meat and Livestock Commission economist Duncan Sinclair.

With the terms of trade effectively forcing the UK out of the commodity end of the market, exporters will have to focus on top quality suckler beef, primarily for the hotel and catering trade, he says. “A lot of our trade was exchange rate driven commodity beef. That will not be possible this time round.”

Turmoil in Russia

Economic turmoil in Russia and south east Asia will also make it much more difficult for UK exporters to find a home for their beef. “Last year over 40% of all EU beef exports went to Russia. Now 400,000t of beef will be trying to find a market elsewhere.”

Evidence of the struggle ahead comes from Northern Ireland, where just 25t a week is being exported, despite the trade ban being lifted (under the terms of the certified herd scheme) eight months ago.

“It has been much tougher than we expected,” says Richard Moore, director of Granville Meat, the only company to tackle the export market. “Purchasers are not in a position to take forward orders and retailers are still very nervous of UK product.” Third World orders have not materialised either, he adds.