Dutch NI beef deal holds promise for UK exports
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 £ 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. *
Extra time to sow
FARMERS affected by recent bad weather have been granted extra time to sow crops so they can still qualify for arable aid.
The new deadline is May 31 and follows MAFFs request for an extension to the European Commission three weeks ago. But it is about half the length applied for, though the ministry may seek a further extension.
IACS forms must still be returned by May 15, the ministry stressed.
Douglas Morrsion, Scottish NFU combinable crops chairman, welcomed the news, since waterlogged soil has prevented many growers from planting their crops. *
Pig groups giant tie-up
NINE pig marketing groups have joined forces as a federal co-operative after almost six months of talks.
Rumours of a giant producer group in the making were confirmed early this year (Business, Jan 22), when Robin Pooley, now independent chairman, told FW that 11 groups were negotiating to combine forces.
In the event, all but two agreed to do so. The group, through expansion of existing federal United Pig Marketing, will sell 3.25-3.5m pigs a year, 21-24% of the market, says Mr Pooley. "But we would anticipate being nearer 30% within a fairly short time." Several independent pig groups have expressed interest, he adds.
The aim is to improve returns through increased negotiating power with buyers and to avoid the worst excesses of the pig cycle by restoring market stability. Discussion, rather than confrontation, is the key, says Mr Pooley.
The nine groups are; Anglian Quality Meat Association, AF, Quality Pig Producers, Western Quality Pig Producers, UPB Porcofram, Scotlean Pigs, Nupork, Meadow Valley Livestock and Yorkshire Farmers Livestock Marketing. *
Deal secures hope for beef exports
Beef export hopes were raised this week after a Northern Irish exporter secured a deal with a Dutch retailer which could re-open markets on the Continent for British beef…………………………page 21
One processor is planning to introduce contracts which would help to remove the glut of calves from the market following the end of the calf processing aid scheme this summer, and others may follow………………………page 22
Up and away
The first of the English earlies were being lifted in earnest this week, and supermarkets are already showing a keenness to stock the product, giving home-grown produce a chance to take on imports……..page 24
Clash over cash
Beef compensation payments contained in the Agenda 2000 proposals could be too generous, according to one ministry official. Not so, says the MLC, in a week when the £ continues to strengthen…………….page 25
Take the high road
farmers weekly takes to the hills this week as we visit our new adopted farm in Scotland, where Ian Duncan Millar farms sheep, cattle and malting barley…………………page 26
Which way weaners?
Weaner prices remain firm, and could squeeze finishers margins. Given the ongoing uncertainties in the industry, whether buyers will be keen to chase the price any higher remains to be seen………page 33