The re-opening of the US market to Irish beef couldn’t come at a better time for the Irish beef industry. We take it for granted that our beef comes from cattle reared in fields for most of the year but industrial feedlots are much more common in the US.
However, there is a growing demand from US consumers for grass-fed, or what they call green-fed beef, particularly among the middle-classes. And the good news is that they are willing to pay a premium for this product. Rearing cattle on grass rather than grain gives beef a different flavour and US tourists frequently comment on the unique taste of Irish steak when they visit this country. The fact that it is hormone-free is another major selling point.
Grass-fed beef now accounts for ten per cent of beef consumed in the US and that market is growing at a rate of 20 per cent per year.
The green image of Ireland has sold many tonnes of Kerrygold butter in countries such as Germany so the image of cattle grazing contentedly on the green fields of Ireland should tap right into that growing demand from US consumers.
Bord Bia is now working on a website specifically aimed at American consumers and buyers and a trade mission is planned in February to develop this market. This follows two visits to Washington by Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney who has been working on the issue for the past two years. He has described the development as “a great news story”, particularly as Ireland is the first EU country to succeed in re-opening the market which closed after the Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) scare hit Europe.
“To be perfectly honest with you it doesn’t look like any other country is going to be entering that market any time soon so we are well ahead of the pack which gives us first mover advantage in a market that is now paying more for beef than any other market in the world,” he said on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland.
Beef from the EU has been banned by the US for more than 15 years because of concerns about BSE. The outbreak of the disease, which attacks the brain and central nervous disease was linked to cattle eating contaminated meat and bone meal. The Irish authorities introduced a series of control measures such as disease surveillance, the removal of specified risk material from human food and animal feed chains and the banning of meat and bonemeal with the result that the number of cases went from 450 in the mid-1990s to none last year. There was just one case, in an old animal, in 2013 and the controls, which are over and above those recommended by scientific evidence, mean that the disease will be detected before the animal enters the food chain.
So what could this new market be worth to the Irish economy? The US imported 1.2 million tonnes of beef last year, worth €4 billion. Before the BSE scare, Ireland was exporting just 110 tonnes of beef a year but Mr Coveney said he would be very disappointed if sales did not reach €50 or 100 million this year. “But we have the potential to go way beyond that.” In 2013, Ireland exported an estimated 466,000 tonnes of beef worth more than €2 billion.
The good news also comes at a good time for Mr Coveney as he prepares to meet more than 1,700 farmers who are marking 60 years of the Irish Farmers’ Association in Dublin on Tuesday.