British retail giant is backing Irish beef

Tesco rules out cheap imports from South America as Commissioner warns against panic

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA

Claire Fox and John Downing

The UK's biggest supermarket chain has insisted it has no plans to import cheap beef from South America post-Brexit amid concerns over Ireland's valuable export trade.

It comes in a week where fears over the knock-on impact on Irish family farms was raised as the UK unveiled its worst-case tariffs and import quotas in the case of a crash out of the EU.

EU Commissioner Phil Hogan swiftly moved to dampen fears, urging Irish farmers not to panic. He believes, even in a no-deal scenario, that demand for premium Irish products like beef and cheese in the UK will remain steady.

"We have had assurances from the UK that they will maintain EU food standards as a minimum. The British shopper is a discerning individual and will not suddenly abandon quality Irish produce because of price increases due to tariffs," the Commissioner told the Farming Independent. Mr Hogan stressed that Ireland is in line for a major share of a €500m package in EU farm supports if a no-deal Brexit happens.

Tesco UK beef manager Hannah Donegan insisted that South American beef was "out of the question" for the supermarket giant's shelves as customers were discerning when it came to quality produce, saying the carbon footprint was also key.

She said the retailer only sells Irish and British beef in the UK and has no plans to source from elsewhere, as much of the product in South America does not meet Tesco's strict quality standards.

"There's a combination of parameters that are important to consumers, with the top two being price and quality. South America is out of the question. We currently source for the UK market all of our beef from the UK and Ireland," Ms Donegan told the Farming Independent.

"If we are to use new supply chains they must meet the requirements that we adhere to within the UK market."

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Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said it was abundantly clear the unveiling of the potential tariffs was a "political game".

Mr Creed did welcome the comments from Tesco but questioned what would be the "tipping point" in terms of consumer preferences and Irish beef.

Permitted

He said if lower-priced beef from South America is permitted to enter the UK in high volumes and is competing directly then it may be a question of "how long can it sustain a higher price push?".

Meat Industry Ireland's Cormac Healy warned that high tariffs would seriously undermine trade as major UK retailers and catering businesses "shield consumers from price inflation".

"If in the future customers have more access to lower-priced beef options from other global suppliers (under a zero-tariff quota or at tariff levels 50pc lower than today), this will make the task of recovering any tariffs on Irish exports to the UK even more challenging," he said.

In the absence of a deal being agreed in the coming days, Mr Healy said a long extension would be best and is what is needed by businesses and farmers.

Mr Hogan said he believes any Brexit extension given to the UK is most unlikely to go beyond May 23.

He said if Britain is to get a longer extension, then it must hold European Parliament elections at the end of May - a move which would be anathema to supporters of Brexit.

"That of itself should concentrate minds in London," Mr Hogan said.

He has again said a support package is prepared for Irish farming and agribusiness if the worst comes to the worst in 10 days' time and the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on March 29.

Indo Farming


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