Beef farmers reeling as UK beef sales slump

British consumers cutting down on beef with sales of roasting joints down 30pc

'UK beef price has come back significantly in recent months'
'UK beef price has come back significantly in recent months'

Martin Ryan and Ciaran Moran

Beef sales in Britain have slumped to their lowest levels since 2016 and new figures from the Department of Agriculture reveal that beef prices here are now back by up to an average of €150 per head.

Quality steers and poor grading heifers have been hit the hardest in the 2019 beef crisis, with producer returns down by an average of €150/hd and some categories down by as much as €300/hd.

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Farm organisations have warned that poor returns for cattle since the start of the year have crippled winter beef finishers and threatens the future of the sector.

Analysis by the Farming Independent shows that returns on finished steers, heifers and young bulls have fallen €54.1m for the first quarter of 2019 - an average drop of more than €4m/week, based on the actual throughput at factories.

To add to the concerns in the beef sector, reports this week indicate difficulties in UK supermarket beef sales with supplies of beef running ahead of demand from major customers.

A report from the Livestock and Meat Commission (LMC) in Northern Ireland has highlighted that retail beef sales in Britain declined 4.8pc for the three months to March 24.

This equates to a decline of 3,575t sold in supermarkets - a €30m drop based on retail sales data from Kantar.

This is the lowest retail spend on beef recorded during this 12-week period since 2016.

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The decline in volume sales has been driven primarily by reductions in the sales of some of the major beef cuts with beef roasting joints back 30pc.

Meat Industry Ireland (MII) told a recent Joint Oireachtas Committee hearing that prices softened towards the end of 2018. It said this was due to increased production of beef in Europe, a significant increase in cull cows, a surplus of supply and significantly increased imports from South America in addition to the volatility created by Brexit.

"Brexit was to happen on March 29…and the anxiety around Brexit remains. And that anxiety meant there were decisions that had to be made by factories during the course of that time," said MII chairman Philip Carroll.

He added that the UK beef price has come back significantly in recent months.

"We more than anyone else are exposed to the UK market and that was the dominating influence on the overall price."

ICSA President Patrick Kent said that Brexit has happened as far as beef farmers are concerned.

"It started happening long ago and has been used as an all-encompassing excuse by the meat industry to cut prices," Mr Kent said.

"The impact has been devastating and the agony has only been prolonged."

Brexit package

Meanwhile, the farm organisation and meat processors are on collision course over a potential Brexit aid package for the beef sector.

Meat Industry Ireland maintains that Brexit supports for the beef industry needed to be applied "at the point of trade" to offset losses from any trade tariffs.

However, both the ICSA and IFA insist that any Brexit-related package for the beef industry must be targeted at primary producers.

"The Commission and the Government should tell the factories they can whistle for it," said IFA president Joe Healy.

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