8th August 2014

Role of Imports Important in Balancing the UK Beef Market

Despite the increased production of beef over the past six months, the UK remains only around 80% self-sufficient and will remain an importer of beef in the future, according to Stuart Ashworth, Head of Economics Services, Quality Meat Scotland.

When beef exports are taken into account, which although under pressure from high prices and strong sterling exchange rates amount to around 10% of total UK production, approximately 30% of the beef consumed in the UK comes from outside the UK.

“The biggest supplier to the UK is Ireland who account for around 70% of beef imports. Imports from the rest of the European Union amount to around 20% leaving 10% to come from countries outside of the EU,” said Mr Ashworth.

“There has been some recent comment about supplies reaching the UK from Poland, but UK customs data suggest hardly any change in Polish activity with the UK.  Indeed, Polish beef supplies to the UK were only slightly higher in the first five months of 2014 than they were in the same period of last year, at 2,900t.  Nevertheless, they amounted to less than 0.75% of UK beef supplies.” 

Polish imports into the Republic of Ireland are much lower than the quantities reaching the UK direct from Poland and declined in the first quarter of 2014 compared to 2013.

Poland has, however, had an influence on the European market and over the past two years it has increased its trade with other European member states, particularly since mid-2013 when changes to slaughter rules in Poland meant it lost some of its export markets outside of the EU. 

“According to Eurostat data, during 2013 Poland exported about 250,000 tonnes of beef to the European Union - 40,000 tonnes more than in 2012 and 70,000 tonnes more than 2011,” said Mr Ashworth.  “In contrast, during 2013 the UK exported around 100,000 tonnes of beef to the European Union.  Almost 70% of Polish exports to the EU go to Germany, Italy, Spain and the Netherlands. 

“While some of this beef may reach the UK from these countries, it will remain negligible compared to the total UK supplies.  Where the challenge emerges is in greater competition in these European markets for UK and Irish beef exporters,” added Mr Ashworth.

However, Mr Ashworth pointed out that the bigger challenge for the domestic supply chain is the type of beef being imported, rather than where the beef comes from. 

“Beef can be traded as fresh chilled product, competing in the fresh retail market, or frozen product, more likely to be traded in the manufacturing sector.  Around 70% of UK beef imports are fresh chilled products.”

Almost 80% of beef imported is in the form of boneless cuts while around 15% is imported as carcases or half carcases.  Boneless beef is an ideal product for the mince, burger and ready meal market.  Data from Kantar Worldpanel reflects this, showing that imports make up a significantly higher share of the mince market than for roasting joints, stewing beef or steaks.

“Consumers do not buy beef in proportion to the most valuable carcase break down. Mince, for example, is easier to sell than roasting joints,” said Mr Ashworth.  “This has become even more evident in recent years, characterised by a squeeze on household budgets.  Indeed, according to Kantar Worldpanel figures, mince has accounted for more than half of the retail market over the past year, compared with around 40% at the turn of the century.”

Consequently, in an under-supplied market, imports often have little impact of market prices because they are used to supply the niches in the market where there is a supply shortage.  However, as domestic supply increases then imports may lead to oversupply in some of these niche elements leading to reduced overall carcase value for a processor. 

“This is one of the reasons why the European Commission, in its discussions with global trading partners, is attempting to have beef recognised as a sensitive product. This would keep some form of duty on beef imports, outside of agreed quotas, and so offer some protection to European beef producers from lower global beef prices,” added Mr Ashworth.

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