By Philip Clarke
DEMAND for British beef is set to expand, after this weeks decision by France to lift the ban on the transport of product across its territory.
Meat industry executives at Anuga – the worlds largest food fair in Germany – said problems with getting lorries through France had thwarted their attempts to re-establish trade with buyers in southern Europe.
“I was in Italy last week and the level of interest was enormous,” said John Dracup of St Merryn Meat, the only company exporting beef.
“The lifting of the transit ban will help considerably. We expect to secure business with the Italians at Anuga this week.”
That message was born out by Giacinto Fusetti of Italian importer Kimeat. “We used to take a lot of British beef before the export ban, supplying wholesalers, supermarkets and caterers.
“Apart from retailers, much of that demand is still there and we would like to be able to import again.”
So far no trade had been possible. Moving beef to Italy through Germany had been examined, but was too expensive. But with the French transit ban now lifted, business could resume.
Another customer at the show was Jean-Paul De Vidts of Select Meats in Belgium.
Since the relaunch of British beef in Brussels last August, he had taken four deliveries from St Merryn and was ready to do more.
“Our first target is the top end of the restaurant sector, which is familiar with high-quality British beef.” The product was being sold openly as Cornish beef and commanded a premium price.
But Mr Dracup warned against expecting too much too soon. “Importers want to keep a low profile. They do not want to be seen to be undermining their own domestic markets.”
He would not be specific about the tonnages going for export, though he admitted just three EU countries had so far taken British beef.
The fact the date-based export scheme only allows boneless beef was also holding the trade back. Traditionally most sales to Europe have been bone-in, said Mr Dracup.
“If the beef-on-the-bone ban was lifted in the UK we could increase the value of our sales considerably,” he said, though it would take up to a year to get EU legislation changed.
The more immediate hurdle was lifting the ban on the sale of beef in France, which used to be the UKs main outlet, taking £250 million of product in 1995.
“An opinion poll this week showed that most French consumers are against lifting the beef ban,” said Remi Fourrier of the British Meat office in Paris.
But one encouraging sign was that in the 18-24 age group, almost 40% questioned thought the ban should be lifted, suggesting young people have more trust in EU food safety controls.
Overall demand for beef in France is down 6% this year. Mr Fourrier said this was due to a drop in quality. “The supermarkets want French-labelled product only. But when you restrict the source of supply, quality goes down.”
The best chance for British beef was in the catering sector, where 90% is imported. But he was concerned that the furore between Paris, London and Brussels was creating more bad feeling, and that would make the job of winning back markets even harder.