Farming leaders have moved to alley fears that recent dips in cattle prices are being caused by a flood of cheap beef imports from Poland.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) says official figures show very little increase in Polish beef coming directly into the UK since the summer, when a ban on religious slaughter led to more Polish beef on EU markets.
According to the most recent figures available, Polish beef imports increased by 384 tonnes between November 2012 and 2013, much less than import increases from Brazil (1,783 tonnes), Namibia (2,082 tonnes) and Botswana (4,002 tonnes) in the same period.
The vast majority of beef imports actually come from Ireland. Between January and November last year, the UK imported 215,100 tonnes of beef, which included 144,446 tonnes from Ireland.
Beef imports to the UK from Poland actually fell by seven per cent on the year in November, while overall beef imports in November were seven per cent higher than the year before - largely due to a five per cent production boon in Ireland.
Chris Mallon, chief executive of the National Beef Association, said logic dictates that beef prices will increase on the back of 2013. Last year was “better than average” for the cattle industry, he said, aided by the discovery of horsemeat in processed meat products which led to consumers demanding British.
Mr Mallon said: “Beef cow numbers are falling and the demand for high provenance locally sourced beef is rising so the simple law of supply and demand should lead to an increase or at least maintenance of the price. This will of course be dependent upon processors and retailers backing British and committing to the future stability of the industry.”
He added: “Cow management is within our control but the sale of the end product is in the hands of others and if they wish to stay in the business of processing beef it is in their own interest to pay a price that ensures their suppliers remain in business.
“Threats of bringing in cheaper imports only succeed in reducing farmer confidence and prevent growth in the beef sector. We need aggressive promotion of beef by retailers and continued support of high provenance British beef.”
But the NFU warns there is likely to be a “dampening” effect on UK beef prices as despite the fact that comparatively little of the available Polish beef seems to be making its way directly onto the UK market, more of this manufacturing quality, largely frozen beef coming on to EU markets will displace other product.
Meanwhile, more Irish beef may make its way into UK markets in the year ahead. A report from the Irish food board estimates a six per cent rise in Irish cattle supplies this year, and a seven per cent increase in export availability. The UK is a key export market for Ireland.
To protect the future of British beef production, the NFU says retailers, processors and food manufacturers must make long-term relationships with farmers and offer secure pricing which incentivises investment.
Short-term lift unlikely
Beef producers have sent fewer cattle to slaughter amid lacklustre market prices and the mild weather means prices are likely to remain down in the short-term, the NFU says.
Slaughterings fell to their lowest for 65 years in 2013 as market conditions encouraged producers to keep cattle longer. Some of those cattle will come forward in the next few months but the mild winter means many processors are still well-stocked and with demand normally lower in January, they do not need to slaughter as many cattle.