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Sunday 21 October 2018

From poor relation to global player - why Ireland's beef industry punches well above its weight

The development of the processing sector during the 1950s resulted in a sharp increase in the percentage of cattle slaughtered and exported as beef rather than shipped live.
The development of the processing sector during the 1950s resulted in a sharp increase in the percentage of cattle slaughtered and exported as beef rather than shipped live.
Cattle being driven through Phibsboro from the Dublin Livestock Market on Prussia Street in Dublin 7
Cattle being loaded at Dublin Port for export to Britain in the 1950s
Declan O'Brien

Declan O'Brien

Over the last seven decades the Irish beef industry has grown to become a global player.

Annual sales of more than 550,000 tonnes mean that Ireland remains the biggest net exporter of beef in the Northern Hemisphere, outstripping the US, Canada and Mexico.

Meanwhile, Irish-owned companies such as ABP, Dawn Meats and Kepak are ranked among Europe's leading meat businesses.

In short, Ireland punches well above its weight in the world's beef stakes.

Cattle being driven through Phibsboro from the Dublin Livestock Market on Prussia Street in Dublin 7
Cattle being driven through Phibsboro from the Dublin Livestock Market on Prussia Street in Dublin 7

But it wasn't always so.

Up to the late 1950s Ireland's beef industry was dwarfed by the live export of cattle. Although 500,000 head were shipped on the hoof to Britain and beyond in 1950, just 35,000 head, or 7pc of available animals, were slaughtered and processed for export.

However, things were about to change radically. By 1954 close to one-third of all cattle exports were shipped as beef, and the 40pc barrier was broken by 1960.

The growth in tonnage terms was equally impressive, with exports of processed and canned beef topping 50,000 tonnes by 1960 - an eight-fold increase from the 6,500 tonnes shipped in 1950.

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In essence, the 1950s marked the genesis of the country's modern beef industry, and its expansion and development helped to transform Irish farming.

Local abattoirs had traditionally slaughtered around 200,000 cattle each year for domestic consumption, but largescale exports of beef were a totally new phenomenon.

Cattle being loaded at Dublin Port for export to Britain in the 1950s
Cattle being loaded at Dublin Port for export to Britain in the 1950s

The growth in exports was driven by guaranteed access to the British market under the 1948 trade agreement between the two countries, and increased demand for beef in continental European states such as Sweden, Holland and Germany.

The opening of the US market for Irish beef - along with lucrative contracts to supply the US armed forces stationed in Britain, mainland Europe and Turkey - was also critical to the sector's development, as was sterling's 30pc devaluation in 1949 which made Irish beef competitive on world markets with Australian and Argentine supplies.

Increased demand was equally important.

The late 1940s and early 1950s were characterised by severe food shortages throughout mainland Europe, while the depletion of cattle herds across the Low Countries, France and Germany during the Second World War meant these states were still unable to supply their domestic beef requirements when their economies began to recover at the start of the 1950s.

Britain was also hard hit. Essential supplies were purchased centrally by the Ministry of Food up to June 1954, and wartime controls and rationing were still in operation.

These difficulties were accentuated by the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and consequent explosion in commodity food prices.

Ireland was ideally positioned to take advantage of the spike in beef demand in the early 1950s. As well as having surplus livestock, the country was one of the few in Europe that was free of Foot and Mouth Disease.

Exports to Britain grew steadily through the early 1950s, as increased beef prices guaranteed under the UK's 1947 Agricultural Act, and Ireland's preferential access to the market, facilitated the trade.

However, new outlets also opened up in Europe and beyond. Sweden was the first continental European buyer to come looking for Irish carcass beef, with the Nordic state taking 2,000 tonnes in 1950-51.

Exports to the US and Canada kicked off the same year, with buyers importing 1,600 tonnes of mainly boxed and boneless cow beef for the burger trade. However, by 1952 North America was taking almost 8,000 tonnes.

This sharp hike in beef exports to the US and Canada was mirrored in the trade generally, with the tonnages shipped quadrupling between 1950 and 1952 to over 26,000 tonnes.

Emigration

In what resembled a 1950s 'dotcom boom', a raft of plants were commissioned to supply the burgeoning beef export trade - delivering a welcome employment boost during a period when emigration was ravaging communities.

Department of Agriculture records show that while there were just 29 plants registered to kill cattle for export markets in 1949, this figure had increased to 40 by 1953.

The companies which moved into the beef export trade in the 1950s fell into three general categories: existing meat businesses that serviced the domestic market but expanded to supply export contracts; processors involved primarily in pig slaughtering which moved into beef processing when the market opportunities arose; and new start-up operations.

The Castlebar Bacon Company was one of the pig plants that diversified into cattle during the period and was killing between 100 and 120 cows per day by January 1952.

Others to follow were Denny's and Clover Meats.

Among the new factories registered during this period were companies which played a major role in the later development of the sector. These included Irish Meat Packers (IMP) in Leixlip, Co Kildare; Kildare Chilling; Dublin Meat Packers in Ballymun; Shannon Meats in Rathkeale, Co Limerick; and MJ Webb's plant in Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo.

Feeding the American forces stationed in Britain, West Germany and Turkey was one of the more lucrative and prestigious beef contracts during the 1950s.

Denny's won a US forces contract in autumn 1951 to supply 1,800 tonnes of beef. This was shipped from Cork and Waterford to Bremerhaven in consignments of up to two hundred tonnes.

The company secured a further US forces contract in the spring of 1952 which was supplied from its Waterford plant.

Winning this US Army business gave the sector both a financial and a reputational boost, as the beef companies involved were USDA approved, which was effectively a 'calling card' that could be used to secure further business.

The initial beef industry boom lasted just five years. It burst into life in 1950, but by the end of 1954 meat processing was in deep trouble.

This sudden reversal of fortunes was due to a mix of external developments, domestic considerations, and internal structural weaknesses in the industry.

On the external front, the ending in June 1954 of the Ministry for Food's lead role in managing both food imports and the setting of retail prices for Britain was a devastating blow for Irish beef processors.

Changes to the UK farm support system which came in the wake of this move resulted in increased payments being made on Irish fat cattle that were exported on the hoof to Britain.

As a consequence, Irish factories were unable to compete with live exporters for stock at fairs and sales and beef exports collapsed as a result.

Carcass beef shipments to Britain more than halved between 1954 and 1955, falling from 28,000 tonnes to under 12,000 tonnes.


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To compound the sector's difficulties, 1954 also saw a sharp fall-off in beef sales to both Europe and North America. As a consequence, overall beef exports fell sharply, dropping from 44,000 tonnes in 1954 to just 17,000 tonnes in 1955.

The downturn in the sector's fortunes exposed serious financial weaknesses in the new-entrant processing businesses.

Many were seriously under-capitalised and poorly equipped to survive the tighter margins and more challenging cash-flow environment of the late 1950s.

Among the more spectacular collapses was that of Frigorifico in Ireland. The company was headed up by the Counihan family from north Co Dublin, who were well-known cattle traders.

The modern processing facility that the company commissioned at Grand Canal Street in Dublin - which was later owned by the equally ill-fated IMP group - opened in the spring of 1952, but the business was in trouble by autumn 1953, and shut early in 1954 with debts of £770,000.

Under-capitalisation was not the only problem processors faced in the 1950s.

Poor marketing, the seasonal nature of cattle supplies, and competition with live exporters - difficulties which would plague the sector until the 1990s - were cited by factory bosses in meetings with the NFA in 1956 as the primary threats to the industry's viability.

Recovery

Despite the challenges, however, a sustained recovery in US beef demand, allied to a steady increase in British sales, ensured that the processing sector survived.

In fact, by 1960 exports of carcass beef had surpassed the 44,000 tonnes recorded in 1954 and topped the 50,000 tonnes mark when canned meat is taken into account.

Ironically, this recovery was strongly supported by the farm organisations who recognised that the factories provided much-needed competition in the beef industry which had been dominated since the late 19th century by live exporters.

Indeed, concern in the NFA in 1956 regarding the growing number of factories that were closing prompted the association to consider a commercial tie up with the State agency, An Coras Tráchtála, to market Irish beef in Britain and the Continent.

The ICMSA went a step further.

Worried that a crucial outlet for cull cows in north Munster would disappear should the troubled Shannon Meats plant in Rathkeale close, the farm body mounted a shareholder drive and invested £20,000 in the company.

It is difficult to imagine farmers putting their hands in their pockets to save a factory these days, given the often fraught relations between beef producers and processors.

However, farmers in the 1950s recognised that a successful beef industry was essential to break the live exporters' grip on the cattle trade.

Ironically, today they are looking to the live shippers to do the same thing in reverse.

How everything changes; and yet stays the same.

Declan O'Brien is a history PhD student in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick and is researching the emergence of the Irish beef processing industry. His work is supported by the Irish Research Council. Email: dobriain21@hotmail.com

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