The times they are a changing for the Irish beef industry

I sense that Irish meat factories will be forced to do some serious cosying up to the UK multiples this side of Brexit becoming a reality.

Given the themes addressed by most of the speakers at this week’s Progressive Beef Production conference, hosted by the Ulster Farmers’ Union and other northern stakeholder groups, it is obvious that the retailers ‘across the sheugh’ see themselves as becoming the true champions of the consumers, where eating quality food, environmental protection and animal welfare standards are concerned.

In practical terms we may well be talking about the introduction of mandatory lifetime assurance for cattle deemed suitable for supermarket contracts and the adoption of a classification grid which will reflect conformation, fat cover and a marbling.

The latter criterion is now used in places like the USA, where is it is regarded as the most accurate indicator of taste, prior to beef actually being cooked.

Other trends coming down the track will encapsulate the growing consumer demand for smaller portion sizes.

This, not surprisingly, will translate into a demand for still lighter and younger cattle. And all of this will take place against a backdrop of the meat industry having to defend its health credentials against an ever more discerning public in the UK.

Meanwhile, at a political level, attempts will be made to forge ever stronger trade contacts between the UK and countries such as New Zealand, Australia and, possibly, a number of the beef producing nations of South America.

And there are indications that the groundwork required to make this happen is already underway.

Trade deals of this nature will, almost certainly, offer tariff free access to the UK for the entire gamut of foodstuffs produced in these ‘partner’ countries.

All of this is serious bad news for the Irish beef industry, which could not compete commercially with imports from Australia or South America – and even more so if beef from Ireland was subject to tariffs at point of entry to the UK.

According to the latest ESRI figures, this could amount to a levy totalling 30% of the beef’s value.

This is why getting into bed with the UK multiples now is an absolute necessity for the Irish meat factories.

Every effort must be made to ensure that beef from Ireland is of a quality that fully meets the criteria which the likes of ASDA, Tesco and Sainsburys will want to establish in a post, or even pre-Brexit world.

UK retailers already take the likes of animal welfare as a very serious issue.

This is why they have pushed the boat out on the issue of the number of movements an animal makes during its lifetime.

In a theoretical world the supermarkets would like all animals born and finished on the farm. And they might stretch it out to two moves, under protest.

To date, they have recognised the more fragmented nature of Irish beef production. But that should not be taken for granted in the long term, particularly if the UK market becomes flooded with cheap beef from other parts of the world.

So, yes, plenty of challenges lie ahead for the Irish beef industry. And all the positive imagery surrounding our ‘grass-fed’ beef may not be strong enough to get the industry over the hump.