The British beef market is finely balanced, with low consumer demand and falling prices despite tighter supplies.
Although steadier in the past two weeks, liveweight prices are still down by 14p/kg to 17p/kg compared with August.
EBLEX estimates that throughputs in January were 3% up on 2013 but has forecast supplies to remain relatively tight in the near future, both in the UK and abroad.
Low consumer demand for beef is holding back the market, as rising beef prices in the past few years have turned some on to other meats.
AHDB/EBLEX senior analyst Debbie Butcher said prices were still high in historical terms and British beef remained the most expensive in Europe by a considerable margin.
About 85% of British beef stays in the UK market, so domestic demand is very influential.
“The horsegate debacle did add a little bit of heat into the market, certainly throughout the summer,” she said. “And generally looking at the five-year average you see prices coming down in the summer.
“But it has not been a good winter. We have not had the significant cold weather, which generally turns people on to it.
“Price was fairly high and clearly there was competition from other proteins.”
Peter Kingwill of auctioneer Hobbs Parker said trade in price terms had declined, particularly since December, but throughputs at Ashford, Kent, were roughly at normal levels.
“The short term is pretty desperate,” he said. “All the reports coming back from individual retailers, butchers or even bigger processors say they are finding it extremely difficult to shift any sort of volume and get any price into it.
“We must look at our domestic marketplace – that is the bit that is stalling. Maybe British beef did go a little bit too dear in the latter stages of last year and we have fallen out of favour with the consumer in terms of good value beef.”
“All the reports coming back from individual retailers, butchers or even bigger processors say they are finding it extremely difficult to shift any sort of volume and get any price into it.
Peter Kingwill, Hobbs Parker
NFU Cymru said the long-term sustainability of Welsh beef production was being threatened by negative short-term price signals and the supply chain should be offering price support.
“The decline could not have come at a worse time, with production costs continuing to escalate on the back of increased feed and bedding costs, as a result of this winter’s bad weather,” said NFU Cymru county chairman for Clwyd Ivor Beech.
“The concerns that beef farmers are now raising should be a wake-up call to the supply chain – producers must get a fair and sustainable price if they are to remain in production.”
At producer group Meadow Quality, managing director Greg Mowbray said low consumer demand had led some abattoirs to be tighter on specifications.
Tougher penalties were being imposed on cattle that were not farm-assured, those more than 30 months or not between 280-380kg carcass weight, and bulls more than 16 months.