Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Tidings of good fortune for English beef and sheep meat

As 2011 comes to an end, it’s very encouraging to be able to look back on a year of vastly improved fortunes for English livestock producers, with prices reaching unprecedented levels for both sheep and cattle.

Robust domestic demand combined with strong export sales resulted in the R4L steer price breaking through the 300p per kg barrier in early April. Ongoing tight supplies on the global market, together with the recent opening of 37 non-EU export markets, contributed to continued strong demand, and by early December the price reached 346p per kg.

Overall cattle slaughterings have been higher in 2011 than year earlier levels, however numbers have fallen back as the year has progressed, with the most recent figures showing that October throughputs were 6% lower on the year.

Strong demand for beef on the export market resulted in UK beef shipments increasing by 36% year on year in the January to October period. Although the EU remains the leading market for our beef, exports to non-EU countries have increased by two thirds in the 10 month period.

Looking ahead to 2012, supplies of slaughter cattle are expected to remain tight. Firm demand on the continent as well as the growing number of new markets is expected to keep export demand competitive. This combined with reduced volumes of imported fresh and frozen beef throughout 2011 and in to 2012 means that the outlook for UK beef production in 2012 is promising.

A buoyant export market in 2011 has also resulted in record prices for sheep producers, with the average SQQ lamb price reaching 260p per kg at auction at its peak in mid-May. New season lambs grew well throughout the dry spring and large numbers of spring lambs were encouraged on to the market in May and June by the prevailing high prices.

Slaughter statistics show lamb numbers in June were 10% higher than year earlier levels, applying some downward pressure on the price in line with the seasonal trend. However, the SQQ remained ahead of year earlier levels throughout the summer and autumn months, averaging 192p per kg in November and firmed further in early December.

Strong demand has led to good growth on the EU and wider export markets in 2011, with overall sheep meat shipments increasing by 11% in the first 10 months of the year. This increase is at a higher level than the uplift in production, meaning a larger proportion of UK sheep meat has been exported this year. In contrast, tight supplies on the global market have resulted in a 14% decline in imports for the same period, with shipments from New Zealand 17% lower than year earlier levels.

With some growth in the breeding flock, higher ewe lamb retentions in 2011, a predicted slight reduction in the lambing rate and lower adult sheep cullings, overall sheep meat production for 2012 is likely to be slightly lower than 2011 levels.

We can’t afford to ignore the situation in the Eurozone which could, of course, have an effect on the fortunes of the beef and lamb sectors. The market is set to see greater volatility which, as a rule, is not great for business. However, ongoing work in non-EU markets and the continued production of high quality beef and lamb puts us in a stronger position than other countries in the international economic storm. With global supplies remaining tight and demand increasing, it is very likely that demand for our products will remain robust. So hopefully our beef and sheep producers can enjoy a little festive cheer!

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Landscapes without Livestock? ‘Too many people miss the silver lining because they’re expecting gold’

Let’s remove or reduce livestock from England’s countryside and we’ll save the planet! So there you have it. Simple. That’s that troublesome global environmental issue taken care of.

For some time the beef and sheep sector has been demonised by some pressure groups with calls to reduce meat eating to help the environment. The domino effect dictates that it would ultimately lead to a reduction in beef cattle and sheep numbers.

Ironically, at EBLEX’s recent annual conference, one delegate astutely pointed out that some of the very same people who knock the industry had moved to his neck of the woods because the landscape is so appealing. And the reason it’s so appealing? Wait for it. Exactly, the land is managed by the very livestock they deem so detrimental.

Now of course everyone is entitled to their opinion on the subject but the debate needs to be balanced. With this in mind an EBLEX has commissioned an independent report examining what could potentially happen to some of England’s most cherished landscapes if beef cattle and sheep were either removed or their numbers significantly reduced through a drop in demand.

'Landscapes without Livestock' has been produced by Land Use Consultants (LUC )with input from farmers, ecologists and landscape specialists and adds considered, expert evidence to the debate about the beef and lamb sector and its positive impact on the environment.

After identifying five distinctive environments in accordance with Natural England’s National Character Area descriptions and Defra’s agricultural survey, striking panoramic photographs were taken to illustrate the status quo. Photomontages at years 3, 10 and 30 have been produced to highlight the visual impacts of change at each location if livestock were no longer there, accompanied by narratives for each landscape to set out the ‘story’ of future change.

So, what has it unearthed? Well, it’s said that ‘simple solutions seldom are’ and this certainly appears to ring true with the argument that by simply removing or reducing livestock from England’s landscape, the environment will be all the better for it. In a nutshell ‘Landscapes without Livestock’ has revealed that simply cutting livestock numbers will have knock-on effects which will themselves have a negative environmental impact - lowland wet grassland to drained and intensively cropped arable land on Romney Marsh, and open grass and moorland to wild fire-threatened rank grassland and scrub on Dartmoor. The impact is clear to see.

All too often much is made of the negatives when discussing the beef and lamb sector and its impact on the environment at the expense of the many positives. It seems that when looking at the current numbers of livestock in the landscape, to coin a phrase, ‘too many people miss the silver lining because they’re expecting gold’.

  • The report can be viewed by clicking here.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Breaking the economic pain barrier in Olympics year and beyond

Economic pain, more spending cuts, a one-in-three chance of recession in 2012. Yes, the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement wasn’t exactly the tonic to get us all in the festive mood. But before we all dive for cover from the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse galloping over the horizon, there are some potential positives for the beef and sheep sector.

The Government will be launching a food and drink action export plan next month. ‘So what?’ the cynics may say. Well, the real nuggets are that it will reportedly include development of a cross-Government strategy on removing animal health trade barriers in key markets such as China and Russia and introduce steps to reduce obstacles to UK food exports. Certainly a step in the right direction and one which underpins EBLEX’s ongoing commitment to developing export opportunities for UK beef and lamb. In addition, a summit will be held in March 2012 to boost innovation in small agri-food businesses.

Both Russia and China are huge potential markets. The importance of securing an export certificate to China cannot be overstated but the process is both lengthy and complex. BSE’s legacy continues to present a challenge but EBLEX has been working to develop market access, with a recent delegation to China and, even more more recently, participation in a meeting with five top vets from the Henan Provincial Animal Husbandry Bureau. At that event, questions were pointed towards China becoming more self sufficient in beef and independent from imports from Japan, the USA and Canada. This would, however, reportedly require production in China to more than double. If an export certificate for the UK could be secured, the opportunities speak for themselves.

As for Russia? Next week (December 15th-17th) will see unanimous political endorsement of Russia’s World Trade Organisation (WTO) accession at the 8th WTO Ministerial Conference. Russia’s accession is especially important for the EU. It is the EU’s third largest trading partner after the USA and China, with an 8.6% share of EU trade in 2010. It is also believed that Russia’s entry in the WTO will have an estimated value for the European Union of €3,900million.

The EU is the second largest beef exporter to Russia but again the UK can’t benefit from it due to a continued BSE-related ban.  As such, part of EBLEX’s ongoing export strategy to secure new market access to optimise returns for producers and processors in England, is to work to open the Russian market. As we’ve said before, resuming beef exports to Russia could be worth around £115m to the UK in the first three years and that’s based on a conservative 2% market share.

Inevitably the majority of post-Autumn Statement headlines have been all doom and gloom - understandably so for many. The food and drink action plan could however give us cause for optimism, not least by building on and support the hard work the beef and sheep meat sector has already been doing to help drive exports forward as we move into 2012.

To read more about EU trade relations with Russia click here.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Climate change debate remains close to home

It appears there is already a cooling of relations between some of the countries at this year’s UN climate change summit in Durban, South Africa, which started this week. There is significant disagreement on fairly fundamental principles, such as when talks should start on a new global emissions agreement. India and Brazil – both significant contributors in terms of emissions – are the latest countries to say they do not want to start talks before 2015, while other countries, including the EU block and smaller, developing nations, would like to see a deal finalised by then.

Meanwhile, “rich” countries such as Japan, Russia and Canada are refusing to commit to targets under the Kyoto Protocol – adopted at the summit in Japan in December 1997 – which should have been met by next year. This was a set of binding targets calling for a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions amounting to an average of five per cent against 1990 levels over the five-year period 2008-2012.

The ultimate aim of the summit is to form an agreement that can constrain greenhouse gas emissions enough to keep the global average temperature rise below 2⁰C. This will be no mean feat with so many countries involved with different opinions and, of course, the whole science behind climate change being such a young one.

In the beef and sheep sector it is fair to say there is still a degree of scepticism about climate change. This can lead some to dismiss it and continue with “business as usual”. However, this is not an option and we do need to address the challenge to reduce our emissions. The simple fact is that the Government believes in it and so has set targets via the Low Carbon Transition Plan, backed up by the targets in the industry-led Greenhouse Gas Action Plan (GHGAP) that we must strive to meet. If not, the reality is that legislation and regulation may follow to force farmers to make changes.

EBLEX has taken a lead in this work. As well as being prominent in the GHGAP project, it has already published two reports under our environmental roadmap banner benchmarking where we are in terms of emissions and energy use, and exploring practical ways that these figures can be reduced. You can find both of these reports here. These practical measures for change are being delivered through our Better Returns Programme.

We are currently finalising content for the third chapter of our roadmap for the beef and sheep meat sector, which we expect to publish in January 2012. This will include the biggest yet on-farm data set, which backs up figures from previous years, showing similar trends and ranges of emissions. It also picks out characteristics of high and low carbon farms, allowing people to look at their own business and see where they might be under-performing.

It also involves sections from the main multiple retailers examining how they are working with their beef and lamb supply chains to improve environmental efficiency, while a further section looks at the issue of carbon sequestration – how land grazed by livestock has a positive effect on emissions by sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and storing it.

In the run up to the 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen, it is fair to say that livestock farming was the scapegoat for climate change. It appeared everyone was suggesting that reducing meat consumption and therefore livestock numbers, would bring the necessary emissions cuts in one foul swoop. The reality is this would do nothing to improve efficiency, would adversely affect food security and any food producing enterprise which replaced it would have its own negative GHG affect. We would also lose the huge benefits that grazing livestock bring to the countryside, not just as a carbon sink but also in terms of landscape value and making the most efficient use of land that could not realistically be used for anything else in terms of food production.

So we are watching the debates in Durban with interest but should not lose sight of the measures already identified that can make an impact on our own carbon footprint.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Taking machinery to task to oil the wheels of efficiency

It’s been said that efficiency is to do better what is already being done, which is of course obvious to anyone in any industry looking to improve their margins.

And while we’re currently enjoying higher prices for beef cattle, it isn’t always translating into significantly greater returns for producers. Inefficient practices are often the root cause of the problem.

With that in mind EBLEX’s 2011 Business Pointers costs of production survey tells an important story, with fixed costs emerging as one of the key differentiators in improving financial margins for beef suckler herd producers.

Latest figures have highlighted a £250 per head difference in fixed costs between top third and bottom third lowland suckler herd producers in England, with £95 difference in variable costs. Similarly, for suckler herds in Less Favoured Ares (LFAs), there is a notable difference on fixed costs of £176 per head between the top third and the bottom third. Variable costs are also £93 per head higher for those in the bottom third.

The result? A significant difference in margins, with bottom third lowland suckler producers making a loss of £397 per head compared to a £4.60 positive margin for top third producers after cash costs – a modest positive margin but a positive margin nonetheless. It’s worth bearing in mind though that these costs relate to the 12 months to March 31st, 2011 - before prices really strengthened. In LFAs, top third suckler herds are seeing returns £261 better than those in the bottom third.

If anything, the Business Pointers data has pinpointed the huge spread in terms of inputs which ultimately has a huge impact on the bottom line. Scratch beneath the statistical surface of fixed costs for lowland suckler herds and you soon discover power and machinery as the biggest villains of the piece. Less efficient producers are contributing £110.70 per head towards machinery upkeep and running costs, plus £78.29 in depreciation on machinery and fixings. For the top third the tale is altogether different with machinery upkeep and running costs coming in at £37.63. With less machinery, of course, comes less depreciation, at £27.36.

The upshot is the suggestion that some producers, at worst, may have too much machinery or, at best, more machinery than they need to effectively manage a beef herd. One potential solution could of course be looking into the possibility of reducing vehicle numbers. Interestingly, contract costs also appear significantly higher for the lower performers, suggesting again that they may have too much machinery. If contractors are doing more of the work, less machinery should be needed.

Labour costs, administration charges and contract fees are other contributing factors to fixed costs that could be reduced, as could variable costs like feed prices, vet bills and bedding. Too much machinery, however, certainly appears to be the key challenge. And with any challenges we face, quick and decisive action is almost always the best way to oil the wheels of improving efficiency.

  • To view the full Business Pointers report and to see a break down on individual enterprise types click here.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Healthy option to keep industry fit for future growth

‘Future proofing’ is a phrase often lauded in business and industry to help ensure enduring success and profitability.

In this respect the beef and lamb sector is no different to any other enterprise but, unlike many other industries, the beef and lamb and other livestock sectors face the monumental challenge of keeping one step ahead of the potentially devastating effects of animal disease.

BSE and Foot-and-Mouth (FMD) crises live long in the memory, not least because of the emotional and financial devastation caused. And while the industry is going through somewhat of a purple patch, animal health should remain high on the agenda to help ensure everything stays rosy in the beef and lamb sector garden.

EBLEX sector director Nick Allen highlighted the issue at the recent annual conference, stressing the need for the livestock industry to think more carefully about animal health if it’s to continue to benefit from current high prices. Warning against complacency, he said disease had upset the markets in the past and that the industry needed to protect itself against future shocks, citing previous devastating effects of both bluetongue and FMD.

Of course disease has no respect for international boundaries. It’s encouraging to see then that the EU has just earmarked more than €203million to support programmes to eradicate, control and monitor animal diseases and zoonoses – infectious diseases that can be transmitted to humans from animals. The aim is to further strengthen the protection of human and animal health in 2012.

The decision was taken by the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (SCoFCAH). Member states also unanimously endorsed Commission proposals to contribute €11.5million for the emergency measures and vaccination plans taken to combat some animal diseases over the last four years.

Overall 138 annual or multi-annual programmes have been selected for EU funding to tackle animal diseases that impact on human and animal health and trade. The lion’s share of earmarked funds - €65million - will finance bovine TB programmes in five member states.

The €11.5million in support of emergency measures will include €1.95million for bluetongue in Germany and around €4million for bluetongue emergency vaccination in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Austria, Sweden, Italy and France.

The EU has also granted a financial contribution of €890,000 to support Bulgaria for measures such as surveillance, database, information campaigns, laboratories and disinfection in a bid to control the spread of FMD among wild animals in the south east of the country.

So it certainly appears that the wider industry is thinking along the same lines, making all the right noises to keep animal health high on the agenda and diseases at bay. As we’ve said though eyes can’t be taken off the ball. Yes, the industry is enjoying a resurgence which we all welcome but, to quote Thomas Edison ‘We shall have no better conditions in the future if we are satisfied with all those which we have at present’.

  • The principles of the EU strategy on animal diseases can be viewed by clicking here.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Exports to China - ‘A single day of sub-zero temperature is not enough to create three feet of ice’

If nothing else, the Eurozone crisis has again brought into sharp focus China’s role as the world’s major financial player.

While Greece and Italy continue to dominate the headlines, commentators have again reiterated Asia’s destiny to become the global economic powerhouse, with China at its heart. And of course, with China’s own meteoric economic rise comes opportunity.

There’s simply no escaping the importance of China on the global economic stage. It’s the world’s second largest economy, with average growth rates of 10 per cent per annum over the last 30 years. In 2010, Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) surpassed $100 bn. It all makes for impressive reading – but how can the UK beef and lamb sector establish itself as a major supplier?

Undoubtedly the building blocks are already in place. China is the world’s second largest importer and, importantly in these troubled times for Europe, is the EU’s biggest trade partner.

Encouragingly, China is also is the largest producer and consumer of agricultural products. It had population of 1.34bn in 2010, yet the rural population is falling, from 74 per cent in 1990 to 54 per cent in 2009. Urbanisation is expected to reach 70 per cent by 2035. Meat consumption is also on the rise. In 1960, it stood at 3.8kg/capita, but had risen to 49.2 kg/capita by 2000, with beef at 4.8kg/capita and sheep meat 2.9kg/capita.

A growing gap between consumption and domestic supply with per capita meat consumption projections predicted to reach 92.6kg/capita by 2030 makes for tantalising reading for exporters. With UK beef and lamb exports up year-on-year since we were allowed to export again in 2006, surely the statistics suggest it’s simply a question of taking full advantage of supply and demand ratios?

Not quite. Market access is both a lengthy and complex process. The legacy of BSE continues to present a challenge and processing standards in the UK in relation to handling 5th quarter also need to be addressed. EBLEX continues to work hard in paving the way to develop market access, but it’s not going to happen overnight. We are currently looking at a number of these issues to promote carcase utilisation and 5th quarter markets, as well as services and support for exporters, and currently have a delegation in China looking at developing opportunities. The latest visit follows EBLEX’s presence earlier the year at the China International Meat Industry Exhibition (CIMIE) in Beijing, a platform for exhibitors to promote their brands and export markets.

So the work is underway and although there is still much to do, the potential long term rewards for UK beef and lamb producers could be immense. As the Chinese proverb says though, ‘A single day of sub-zero temperature is not enough to create three feet of ice’ – ‘Great things cannot be accomplished in a short period of time’.

  • Further information on China’s economic rise, the Eurozone crisis and what it means for East and West can be read by clicking here.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

EBLEX conference 2011 – from Big Bang to secure future

EBLEX’s annual conference has become a major date in the calendar for producers, processors, agricultural journalists, trade associations and EBLEX staff to mix and discuss issues affecting all aspects of the industry, and this year’s event didn’t disappoint.

Around 170 delegates attended this week’s event at Kenilworth’s Chesford Grange Hotel which provided the platform for lively presentations, debate and culminated with calls for an industry action plan to tackle future challenges from EBLEX chairman John Cross.

Undoubtedly one of the highlights with the audience was the entertaining and enlightening presentation on red meat and health from guest speaker and Meat Advisory Panel member (and former EBLEX board member) Prof Robert Pickard.

Bringing the house down with a series of one-liners, including “You will never see a cave painting of a vegetarian”, he made a number of serious, valid and well-measured points about the nutritional value of red meat. We’re all aware of the ongoing challenges driven by industry detractors surrounding the image of the industry. Somewhat surprisingly starting with the Big Bang, Prof Pickard commented on red meat’s crucial role in a balanced diet, its positive contribution to the environment and the fact that climate change isn’t a new phenomenon.

Delegates heard about the outlook and global prospects for the beef and lamb from EBLEX sector director Nick Allen and head of trade development Peter Hardwick, while marketing activity in France was outlined by Rémi Fourrier, EBLEX export manager for that country. Nick added that Halal needs to come off the "too difficult" list. He said it is important to the industry, EBLEX is taking it seriously and other people in the industry need to as well.

Unsurprisingly, ongoing domestic economic uncertainty and Eurozone difficulties prompted concern, which was touched on by John Cross in his closing comments. Importantly he stressed that businesses in the red meat industry that survived these volatile times would be those who were fastest and most willing to adapt to change and invest in a global market vision, although significant disease outbreak remained a major Achilles heel for the sector.

His closing rallying call left the conference in no doubt what would play a major role in the sector’s future success. He called for an accurate, high-speed data-base for sheep and beef sectors, capturing assurance status to put the industry on an equal - or better – footing than competitors. As he rightly said “No one else is going to grant us a secure future”.

EBLEX’s press release on the annual conference can be viewed by clicking here.

All the conference presentations are available on the EBLEX website and can be viewed by clicking here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Meat sector escapes fickle finger of blame on obesity? Fat chance

Obesity has again hit the headlines recently with calls to tackle the issue, not least among the nation’s children. Earlier this month at the Conservative Party Conference, David Cameron called for drastic action to be taken on obesity to prevent soaring health costs and falling life expectancy. Talk of the sensitively-dubbed ‘fat tax’ emerged, following Denmark’s example where a surcharge has been imposed on foods with more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

Reportedly, by 2050 more than half of the population is predicted to be obese. The Department of Health’s new obesity strategy has talked about creating the right environment for individuals to make healthier choices. Figures set out in the strategy suggest that the average adult consumes 10 per cent more calories than they should.  Food and drink manufacturers have been called on to cut five billion calories from the nation’s daily diet as part of plans to reduce obesity levels in England.

Certainly a serious issue worthy of debate at the highest level so it is unfortunate that certain regular industry detractors seized on it to extol the virtues of cutting down on meat intake as one way of managing weight. It’s disappointing to see yet again that meat consumption appears to have been singled out in some quarters as the pantomime villain. ‘Oh no it isn’t!’, ‘Oh yes it is!’ I’m afraid. What are the facts though?

Yes, obesity in England has more than doubled in last 25 years and by 2050 is predicted to affect 60 per cent of adult men, 50 per cent of adult women and 25 per cent of children, but the exact causes are not clearly understood. It’s now accepted that there are a combination of nutritional and non-nutritional factors that control food intake – eat better and exercise regularly, in short – and red meat can play an import role in better diets. Red meat is a major source of protein, providing about 27-35 g/100g of cooked beef or lamb. Protein may lengthen the time it takes for people to want to eat again, compared with carbohydrate and fat. Increasing protein intake from 15 per cent to 30 per cent of energy has been shown to decrease calorie intake.

Evidence also suggests that in dietary practice, it may now be beneficial to replace refined carbohydrates with protein sources that are low in saturated fat, such as lean red meat. It has suggested that incorporating additional lean red meat into a calorie-reduced moderate fat may improve the feeling of fullness that persists after eating. This would suppress further energy intake until hunger returns. Some cuts of lean red meat and red meat dishes have a low energy density, which have been found to contribute to greater weight loss without creating a sensation of food deprivation.

Obesity is a very real health problem for many people but attributing blame to one specific food group is, at best, misguided. Contrary to popular belief, lean red meat can play a positive role in weight loss and weight maintenance programmes. But of course the debate is not black and white and is unlikely to be over even after the fat lady has sung.

The Government’s full obesity strategy can be viewed by clicking here.

The Meat Advisory Panel’s factsheet on red meat and weight management can be viewed by clicking here.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Working hard to stimulate demand for beef and lamb

Among the services EBLEX provides to beef and sheep levy payers is marketing – working (often behind the scenes) to stimulate demand for quality beef and lamb. In the consumer arena, this includes our work with Red Tractor Beef and Lamb,, our meat and health, and meat and education programmes, and MeatMatters. Complementing this is our trade side marketing work with the major supermarkets, Quality Standard Mark, independent butchers, promoting new cuts from alternative butchery techniques, and supporting the foodservice sector.

It is essential we work hard on the domestic front as this is where the bulk of beef and sheep meat produced in England is sold – and with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) inflation in the UK rising to 5.2% from 4.5% the month before, consumers are increasingly looking to where they can make food efficiencies. Beef demand certainly remains robust, with latest Kantar Worldpanel figures showing beef sales by volume up 1 per cent for the 12 weeks to October 2 and 0.2 per cent on a year earlier, but we cannot assume this will remain the case simply because people like eating it.

Therefore, the launch of the EBLEX-backed 5by25 initiative, supported by celebrity chef James Martin and a host of national organisations, was rather timely this week, bringing into sharp focus the need to help young people develop skills to create basic dishes with raw ingredients, like beef and lamb. Research commissioned by EBLEX showed that almost 60 per cent of those aged 18 to 25 cannot make a staple dish like spaghetti Bolognese. Only 6 per cent of those questioned knew how to make the three test dishes of spaghetti Bolognese, curry and Yorkshire pudding. Clearly a programme was needed to highlight the frightening shortage of cooking skills for the next generation to ensure healthy, cost effective dishes can be prepared at home from the raw ingredients.

It prompted the development of 5by25, which calls for young people to be given the support to master at least five simple recipe dishes by the age of 25 – the time by which most have left home – with a wealth of information on basic recipes on the website

At a London launch this week, it had backing across the board, including the Prince’s Trust and National Union of Students, from the assembled 100 guests. The one possible exception was Further Education and Skills Minister John Hayes who discussed his doubts on the need for such a project at the event with a clearly passionate James Martin. Mr Martin went on to extol the virtues of the initiative through a series of radio and television interviews over two days, again demonstrating his support for our industry, which saw him step up to front the annual EBLEX Young Chef Challenge back in 2006, challenging children to come up with dishes featuring beef or lamb mince.

The real benefits of the project will be long term, as we (hopefully) see more people buying the basics, including beef and lamb, to create healthy dishes for themselves and for their families. The proof of the pudding, as they say, will be in the eating.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Sound bites and spats – everyone’s farming’s new best friend

The perennial autumn exodus from Westminster for party conference season has come to an end with politicians issuing their respective rallying cries to the troops.

Traditional seaside town venues may have been eclipsed by big city locations, but the conference season has nonetheless heralded its usual mix of gossip, spats and witty put-downs.

Against a backdrop of a ‘dangerous new phase’ for the global economy, it came as no surprise to hear the prevailing saga of Britain’s long hard road to economic recovery dominate. But what of the agricultural sector? With the imminent publication of CAP reform proposals, the ongoing debate over tackling bovine TB, food security and sustainability, there was surely plenty to discuss. And everyone it seems is farming’s new best friend.

In the blue corner, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Caroline Spelman. And in the red corner,  Mary Creagh, Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Having faced a tirade of criticism from Ms Creagh, Mrs Spelman came out fighting, listing her department’s achievements – how producers had been helped by improvements to the Rural Payments Agency, tackling bovine TB and improved labelling regimes. The Conservatives were described as the Government on the side of farmers, before delegates heard the pledge to find ways of unlocking the potential of the rural economy. On CAP reform, Mrs Spelman also pledged to get a good deal for farmers, consumers, taxpayers and the environment.

A week earlier, Ms Creagh championed Labour as the party of jobs and growth, standing up for fairness in the countryside and strong rural communities. The Labour conference fringe also cited the need to grow and produce more. Delegates heard that any plan for growth must have a plan for food. They were told how the Labour Party policy review would seek a proper food strategy for each region with a focus on cattle farms in the west and north of England, as well as those in Wales and Scotland.

In Manchester, the Government faced calls to negotiate a CAP better geared to competitive farming with a policy framework to put farmers in England on level competitive terms with farmers elsewhere in the EU. The issue was also raised at the Liberal Democrat conference where we heard how the party and the NFU pledged to work together to secure a fairer CAP for UK farmers, even after the two organisations clashed on the badger cull proposals. Bovine TB and the proposed badger cull again featured at the Labour fringe. Positive and negative aspects of intensive livestock farming also came under the spotlight.

Undoubtedly, all worthy and important issues for the industry and it’s encouraging to see them debated in such a high-profile arena with all parties laying claim to having the industry’s best interests at heart – not exactly a bolt from the blue, or indeed the red or the yellow. Whether the rhetoric translates into more substantial action will remain to be seen.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The cost of new fresh meat labelling rules

We all like to know what we’re getting for our money and fresh meat is no exception, reflected by the adoption of new EU country of origin labelling (COOL) rules.

The European Parliament has adopted extending mandatory country of origin labelling to fresh sheep meat in its ‘Food Information to Consumers’ report. The aim is to improve the existing labelling rules and provide greater clarity to consumers.

This has been in the pipeline for a long time and origin labelling has been one of the most debated issues of the proposal, not least because of the difficulty in finding a consensus between the European Parliament and the Council on extending COOL to basic foodstuffs.

Generally, the new rules will maintain the current approach that country of origin or place of provenance labelling on food is voluntary, unless its absence could mislead consumers. However, the standout feature for our industry is that origin labelling becomes mandatory for fresh meat from sheep, an indication that consumer concerns about the safety of meat remain. Once the legislation is published in the EU Official Journal at the end of November, the new rules for meat origin labelling are to be introduced within two years.

So what will it all mean? This approach has existed in the beef industry for some time as part of the fallout of the BSE crisis and the latest decision will mean that origin labelling will become compulsory for all kinds of meat. The belief is that by indicating the origin of food, consumers are better informed and can make decisions based on that, although many suspect that price will remain the first and decisive criteria when buying food. At a simplistic level the industry in the UK quite likes the idea, but unfortunately there’s no such thing as a free lunch. The down side of this legislation is that it will impose requirements of traceability to provide that level of assurance – inevitably, that will mean there’s a cost involved.

The government has welcomed the move, saying: "Shoppers will now be absolutely sure that if meat claims to be British, it will be British - reared to the high standards they'd expect."

Yet while the idea that there will be clear origin labelling on food is to be welcomed, what remains to be seen are the detailed rules which could include the need for full traceability. Unquestionably, the legislation will clearly improve the levels of transparency but as mentioned earlier, in practice there will be a cost involved. What remains to be seen is who will pay for it.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

The value of the French market

Opening up new and often far-flung markets for UK beef and lamb is a key element of the EBLEX strategy, but we should not underestimate the significance of more established export markets closer to home.

France represents the single most important export market for our lamb, with around one in every five lambs born in the UK ending up on a French plate. In 2010, France was the destination for 60% (57,400 tonnes) of all UK sheep meat exports.

In terms of beef exports, the quantities are far more modest, however significant inroads have been made since the 2007 foot and mouth disease outbreak severely eroded French trust in our product. In 2010, beef exports increased by 26% to 10,000 tonnes, indicating a strong recovery in this trade. It is also important to note that in terms of quality beef, France is one of our main markets.

The success of farm assured beef and lamb on the French market is due in no small part to the work of the AHDB France office, based not far from Paris in Fontainebleau. Our colleagues in France have worked hard to create a positive image of the product and build fruitful relationships with the French supply chain.

Developing brands has been a key aspect of our strategy in France, with the establishment of the Agneau St George (St George lamb) brand, which has helped differentiate the product and communicate messages to consumers about the taste and tenderness of farm assured lamb. The brand has a growing presence in the major French multiples, supported by in-store promotional activity, and has proved so successful that is has now been extended to include beef (Boeuf St George).

Running in parallel to the development of Agneau St George, the Agneau Presto (quick lamb) campaign, which is a joint venture involving EBLEX and our UK, French and Irish counterparts, was launched in early 2008 in order to reverse a 10-year trend of falling lamb consumption in France. The campaign targets younger consumers by promoting quick, simple lamb recipes, with the aim of transforming lamb from an occasional treat into something which is consumed more regularly.

The specific trust issue around beef exports has required a very different approach, in the form of the establishment of the Rosbifs Club. This exclusive group of key opinion leaders from the French food industry, including butchers, chefs and food writers, come together every six months, on one side of the channel or the other, to see the supply chain in action, and, of course, to taste the product. The result is a group of very influential advocates of quality beef.

As we aim to meet our objective of maintaining lamb exports at a third of production and increasing beef exports to 20% of production by the end of 2012, it is impossible to overstate the importance of these activities in such a key export market.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Will the beef industry benefit from thaw in Russian trade relations?

At first glance, It had all the ingredients of a John Le Carré novel, not least the KGB’s apparent attempt to recruit a young future British Prime Minister into its ranks. Yet while the David Cameron’s visit to Moscow last week certainly made for sensational headlines, it could also have far reaching implications for the beef industry.

For anyone involved in the beef sector, the major steps taken to re-establish trade links can’t have escaped attention. The long-standing Russian ban on British beef is a subject that EBLEX, together with Defra, has been working hard to address for some time.

Russia is one of the largest global importers of beef, buying more than 600,000 tonnes each year, historically much of it coming from Brazil and other South American countries. However, supplies from Brazil have tightened in the last couple of months after Russia delisted some 85 plants.

These substantial imports into Russia have largely been driven by a long-term downward trend in domestic production. Total cattle inventories are expected to shrink to 16 million head this year, down four per cent, on top of a three per cent decline in 2010. The accelerated decline has been caused by increased feed costs, exacerbated by a 25 per cent decline in feed availability at the start of 2011, compared with 2010.

These two elements point us to the same conclusion – the potential for beef exports to Russia is enormous. The question is: “How does the UK capitalise on it?” As mentioned earlier, Brazil and other South American countries dominate exports to Russia, but the increase in exports from the EU has been nothing short of meteoric. They increased by more than 350% in 2010, compared to 2009, making it the second largest beef exporter to Russia. Coupled with fading fortunes for Brazil, that could mean that in 2011/12, the EU fills an even larger share of the Russian order. Good news indeed – the only (substantial) fly in the ointment being the fact that at present the UK can’t benefit from this increased trade due to a continued BSE-related ban. Ironically, there are several member states within the EU which have trade relationships with Russia despite having higher instances of BSE than us. If beef exports were to resume, our estimates suggest the market could be worth around £115m to the UK in the first three years. That’s based on a conservative two per cent market share.

The opening of the Russian market is part of EBLEX’s ongoing export strategy to secure new market access to optimise returns for producers and processors in England, particularly useful for those cuts for which there is low or no demand domestically. To this end, through the Export Certification Partnership with Defra, we have placed Russia as a top priority in terms of market access and the lifting of import restrictions. As well as high level contact at a technical level, EBLEX also asked for the matter to be raised at ministerial level. The fact that this was on the agenda during Mr Cameron’s visit shows the importance everyone is now attaching to this issue. By putting the issue on the political map, we hope the profile of the discussions will be permanently raised, driving us ultimately towards the goal of opening the Russian market, something which could be achieved in a relatively short period of time if the political winds are favourable.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The truth about statistics

A recent episode of the BBC science programme Bang Goes the Theory included a feature which appeared to be, at first glance, yet another of the increasingly frequent media attacks on red meat consumption because of alleged health risks.

One of the presenters was handing out bacon sandwiches on a market stall, accompanied by a sign reading ‘bacon increases risk of bowel cancer by 20%’.

He then produced a second plate of bacon sandwiches and another sign which read ‘bacon increases the risk of bowel cancer from 5% to 6%’.

As he tried to give away the sandwiches to passers by, the vast majority opted to take them from the second plate, afraid of their massively increased risk of bowel cancer if they picked one from the first plate.

Of course, as he eventually pointed out, the bacon sandwiches on both plates were exactly the same, as was the increased risk of bowel cancer associated with eating them. Both signs gave the same message, but expressing it in a different way completely changed the public perception.

Whether the bowel cancer statistic is correct is a completely separate debate which we have already addressed in the facts about red meat and health, however the programme is a great illustration of how statistics can be used to influence public opinion.

For the meat industry, which is often targeted by single issue groups who use statistics as ammunition to make people question their meat eating habit, TV programmes like this which help make the public more statistically-savvy can be no bad thing.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

EU puts bovine EID in the spotlight

Notifications of animal births, deaths and movements have long been the subject of criticism from farmers for a number of reasons.

Largely driven by concerns over labour and equipment costs linked to the administrative burden involved in registering notifications in the EU, the criticism is understandable. Currently, all notifications must be manually registered and are then inputted into the national computerised database.

However, labour and equipment are not the only concerns, with criticism also being fuelled by the potential implications for cross-compliance payments, which may lead to reductions of the Single Direct Payment and other Common Agriculture Policy (CAP) schemes.

The issue has clearly struck a chord across Europe, and the European Commission has published a proposal on bovine electronic identification (EID) which could pave the way for the introduction of a voluntary bovine EID system. The proposal would also allow member states to introduce mandatory bovine EID at national level.

Generally the view in the industry seems to be that, with proper consultation and proper thought being given to the practicalities, bovine EID would be a positive step. Undoubtedly, it would present less of a technical challenge than sheep EID. Both the cost and the practicality in the cattle sector make it a more attractive proposition, essentially because there are fewer movements and more valuable animals to stand the cost of the EID tags and reading equipment. EID in the sheep sector is fraught with difficulties, but in the cattle sector the challenge would be more proportionate to the benefits.

There is little doubt that the industry would prefer a voluntary system, as there is still the issue of cost-effectiveness, meaning that for some EID in cattle would not stack up financially. However, with EID on farms becoming more common place especially for those with sheep interests, there is less anxiety about the introduction of bovine EID.

We would hope and expect the UK to take the view that it would not like to push a mandatory scheme. In the beef sector, there are already a number of producers voluntarily looking at EID to improve their management. The number of farmers investing in the hardware and software to make the most of EID within their sheep enterprise is increasing. If producers are already using it for sheep, the opportunity to reduce the administration involved in cattle movements is a major incentive to consider using it on the cattle side. Ultimately, it comes down to management benefits. If producers can record more and better information, and use the information to increase the efficiency of the production process, that will drive the use of bovine EID forwards.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Mounting pressure prompts PAPs rethink

Strict rules on the use of processed animal proteins (PAPs) introduced in 2001 to combat Transmissable Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) could soon be reviewed.

With growing pressure on the European Commission from the agriculture sector to consider a possible reintroduction of PAPs in animal feed, MEPs have thrown their support behind the proposals.

Of course the devastating effects of TSE and BSE are still hauntingly vivid for all in the industry. This led to the 2001 introduction of EU control measures to combat the spread of BSE. These measures included a ban on the feeding of processed animal proteins to animals kept, fattened or bred for the production of food. Effectively, don’t feed animal protein to other animals to prevent any spread of the disease.

Efforts to combat TSE by the EU have been successful, but the EU protein deficit and constant increase in feed prices have prompted increasing calls for a review of the rules. MEPs have clearly been listening and their decision has largely been welcomed, with some claiming it to be a useful step in unwinding TSE regulations.

The Commission’s TSE Roadmap 2 strategy paper has set out proposals which would allow pig and poultry protein to be used in animal feed. It would allow pigs to be fed poultry protein and poultry to be fed pig protein. Importantly though, bans on protein from cattle and sheep in animal feed and on protein being fed to animals of the same species would remain in force.

Understandably, the issue remains sensitive and highly emotive both within the industry and among consumers. If a decision is made to reintroduce pig and poultry protein in animal feed it is unlikely to come into force until the latter part of 2012. In July the European Parliament adopted a non-legislative resolution supporting the gradual lift of the ban on feeding animal protein to non-ruminants, provided further safeguards are put in place. These safeguards include stipulating that the processed animal proteins must come from species not linked to TSE and may be fed only to non-herbivores. It has also stressed that only PAPs fit for human consumption should be used.

Consumer confidence will no doubt be key to the success of any amendments to the current legislation and potential future developments. It remains of paramount importance that exceptional animal and public health standards must be maintained to help ensure that all of the hard work carried out to combat TSE is not undone. As such, caution will be the watchword with regards to any changes to the status quo.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Reducing meat consumption will not address environmental challenges

Thanks to single issue pressure groups like Paul McCartney’s Meat Free Monday, consumers are increasingly being led to believe that they should cut back their carnivorous habits in order to ‘save the planet’.

Livestock production does have a significant ‘carbon hoofprint’, as it has done for centuries, emitting 5% of the UK’s carbon emissions, largely methane and other gases expelled as a result of the natural digestive process. Taking that figure at face value, living on a diet of vegetables and cereals, which account for 2% of UK emissions, would seem like a simple way to reduce emissions. But it’s just not as simple as the pressure groups would have us believe.

If consumption of meat reduced, there would be a fall in livestock numbers which would lead to a net reduction in emissions from the sector. However, reducing consumption would not make livestock production more efficient. The carbon footprint of the beef produced would be the same. Surely the real drive should be to increase efficiency to physically reduce emissions from each animal? If not, then we could vastly decrease global emissions simply by reducing the number of vehicles on the road rather than pursuing the current strategy of investing in greener engine technology.

People would still need to eat if meat consumption was reduced, so there would have to be a corresponding rise in production of other foodstuffs which would have its own negative environmental impact – devaluing the gain achieved by lower meat production.

Simply digging up areas currently grazed by cattle and sheep to plant them with more crops to maintain food security for the country is not feasible. Much of the countryside currently grazed by ruminants, in particular the hills, moors and less favoured areas, is not suitable for food production. And in the areas where you can cultivate the land, on top of the negative effect that increased production would have, digging up grassland would release vast amounts of carbon which had been captured from the atmosphere and stored in these natural carbon sinks, managed effectively by grazing animals.

Allied to this, and an issue frequently overlooked by many campaigners, is the vital role played by farmers and their stock in terms of countryside stewardship. Grasslands in general, and hill and upland environments in particular, fundamentally depend on beef and sheep production. If these areas were not maintained by grazing animals, valuable wildlife habitats would be lost, and the quintessentially English landscape of rolling green pastures would no longer exist. Some areas would need to be actively managed in an alternative manner which again would have its own carbon cost.

The livestock industry is investing heavily in research and development to cut emissions (the two EBLEX roadmaps are a good example of this), and figures show that significant progress has already been made, with 5% fewer prime animals being required to produce each tonne of meat in 2008 than in 1998. Rather than cutting meat consumption therefore, ensuring instead that consumers are encouraged to buy high quality, farm-assured beef and lamb is the best way to help 'save the planet' through decreased emissions from meat production.

Find out more about livestock and climate change in our previous blog, Putting the record straight on climate change .