Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Keep calm and carry on

It bore a striking resemblance to a group of over-excited children who’d been let loose in a sweet factory.

Murmurings of ‘the US is looking at lifting restrictions on importing beef’, quickly reached a fever pitch of anticipation among some quarters in the industry about the potential of Uncle Sam re-opening its doors to beef imports from the UK.

On the face of it the excitement was understandable as reports circulated about the publication of a draft regulation in Washington, with the US proposing bringing its rules on the import of bovine products in line with international criteria. If approved, it would remove the ban on EU beef imports imposed in 1997 in the wake of the BSE crisis.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) is recommending the adoption of the criteria the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) uses to identify a country’s BSE risk status. It has been reported that the USDA has noted the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands meet all other health requirements and could export beef to the US sooner than other EU members if the ban is lifted.

Exciting news but we must maintain some perspective on the issue. We’ve been aware of the US intention to review this for some time. The agreement to the final tranche of High Quality Beef access is linked to the US lifting sanctions on a range of products. It was never contingent upon a move on lifting the ruminant import ban. The crucial point to remember is that this is a piece of draft legislation based on a USDA recommendation which will now receive consideration by the legislature. There is no lifting of the ban as such at this stage although there are clear indications that a positive outcome is likely.

However, and without wishing to rain on everyone’s parade, we never did any significant trade with the US prior to BSE and it’s unlikely we will do anything substantial if sanctions are lifted. There may well be some high value meat export opportunities but nothing significant in terms of volume. That said, it’s important to look at the bigger picture. Many of our potential trading partners take their lead from the US and lifting restrictions in the US will certainly do no harm to our negotiations elsewhere, not least the Far East. That’s where the real value may lie.