UK Govt must ensure golden opportunity for Scotch beef not lost

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  By a Newsnet Reporter
 
Scotland’s world renowned beef sector is currently facing both “massive opportunities” and “all too apparent” threats, say industry experts.
 
The massive opportunities centre on global markets, particularly in Japan and China. Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for food and farming, Richard Lochhead, recently returned from leading a Scottish trade mission to the Far East where he met with meat importers and chefs hungry to serve up Scotch Beef.

Since the BSE crisis in the 1990’s many global markets have been closed to exports of red meat from Europe.  Now, trade delegations such as that led by Mr Lochhead, have shown that there is evident demand for markets, particularly in Japan, to be opened up to Scotch Beef imports.

Mr Lochhead commented: “In order to keep growing Scotland’s food exports it is vitally important we continue our efforts to exploit untapped markets around the world. Opening the Japanese market to our meat exports is of key importance to growing our food sector.”

The power to negotiate with the Japanese on matters of international trade does not however rest with the Scottish Government. Instead it will be up to UK Government Ministers at Defra (the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs) to take matters forward.

Speaking on his return from Tokyo, Mr Lochhead commented, “I would like to see it made a priority by Defra – who I know have some paperwork to be completed for the Japanese Government on this issue – so we can capitalise on the ready demand from Japanese chefs and retailers for our premium quality meat as quickly as possible.”

To emphasise the importance placed on the potential of the Japanese market for Scotch Beef, industry representatives have today written to Owen Paterson MP, the Defra Secretary of State, calling for his assistance and support.

The Japanese authorities are reported to have already been in negotiations with some individual EU member states over reopening their markets to beef and Scottish beef farmers are now want to see the UK Government actively engaged in a similar dialogue with Japan.  Reopening a beef trade with Japan would follow similar recent success in having the beef ban to Russia lifted.

Quality Meat Scotland Chairman Jim McLaren, who accompanied Mr. Lochhead in the Far East, commented: “What is clear is that Japanese consumers are very discerning and there is a massive opportunity in Japan for a product like Scotch beef with its strong health and welfare, environmental and quality assurance credentials. It is therefore important that access negotiations are progressed to allow us to develop this market.”

Nigel Miller, president of  NFU Scotland and a signatory of today’s letter stated, “Defra’s recent success in securing a lift on the ban on exports of British beef to Russia shows what can be achieved and we believe there would be merit in directing resources towards securing a similar export deal with Japan. As Scottish beef farmers, we offer our support to achieve this.”

The letter to the UK Government was also signed by the National Beef Association, Scottish Beef Cattle Association, Scottish Association of Meat Wholesalers and the Institute of Auctioneers and Appraisers in Scotland.

All of the signatory organisations are keen to highlight the “golden opportunity” for Scottish producers in the growing beef consumption markets of China and South East Asia, however, separately the NFUS is also highlighting the threats to the beef supply chain.

The Scottish beef herd was decimated by falling prices and low profitability in the BSE years of the late 1990’s. Critical mass in beef production was lost, and has yet to be regained, and this in turn has led to closures of abattoirs and meat processing plants. Now, despite increasing demand leading to good price premiums of 20p to 30p per kilo for the Scotch Beef brand, many farmers are still struggling to make a sustainable profit thanks to soaring input costs of feed and fuel.

Nigel Miller of the NFUS commented, “The threats (to the Scotch Beef sector) are all too apparent.  We have been losing critical mass and our cow numbers are down 20 percent on 1997.  At processor level, where there is a huge push to maintain throughput, 17 percent of cattle going through Scottish abattoirs are now from England or Northern Ireland.”

The NFUS is now seeking to establish a “blueprint” to combat these threats and build sustainability back into the Scottish beef sector. The blueprint will seek to enable the Scottish beef sector to fully capitalise on the new emerging world markets and the demand for Scotch beef at home, particularly from visitors to Scotland.

“We need a blueprint that will help build cow numbers and sustain beef production in Scotland in the long run.  We need to help herds with their profitability and efficiency and provide our meat plants with the right kind of animals to optimise processing.”  Mr. Miller continued, “Scotch beef is a success story.  It is a premium product with huge brand awareness.   This blueprint is all about how we can ensure our beef industry remains the cornerstone of Scottish farming in the years ahead.

The NFU Scotland is taking its draft blueprint for Scotland’s beef sector on the road this week in order to engage with farmers and other stakeholders at a series of meetings throughout Scotland.