Farm Ireland

Saturday 18 November 2017

Irish sheep meat being 'fast-tracked' for approval in American market

The American market may open to Irish sheep soon.
The American market may open to Irish sheep soon.
Darragh McCullough

Darragh McCullough

Prospects are holding up for the sheep sector following suggestions from a top official that Irish sheep meat is being fast-tracked for approval for the US market.

Ireland is currently barred from exporting sheepmeat to the US due to the existence of scrapie (TSE) here.

Speaking at a Bord Bia meat market seminar, the assistant secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Brendan Gleason, said that the market may open sooner than expected following Ireland's inclusion in a short-list of countries being considered for exemption to the scrapie ban by the USDA. Mr Gleason is hopeful that the ban may be lifted on Irish sheep exports this year.

The Irish sector has turned around its dependence on carcase exports to more valuable primal cuts over the last decade, according to Bord Bia's sheep specialist, Declan Fennell.

"We were exporting 65pc of our volume as whole carcase 10 years ago, with the rest going as primal cuts. That meant that we were taking a single price for the majority of our product. Today that balance is the opposite, with almost 70pc of our exports being sold as primal cuts.

In contrast, the British sheep sector still sells 65pc of its lambs in carcase form. But we still have a way to go before we catch up with the Kiwis, who have managed to get 90pc of their sales into more valuable primal cuts," he said.

The Irish sector benefitted strongly from the strength of sterling in 2015, which bolstered returns in its biggest market. Sales into Britain still accounts for over 25pc of Irish exports, and overall sales bounced back by 26pc in 2015 on the back of favourable exchange rates.

"Britain is the EU's biggest exporter of sheepmeat, but the strength of the pound made their exports very uncompetitive, and reduced their exports by 21pc during the first 10 months of 2015," said Mr Fennell.

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African markets

The Bord Bia analyst noted that the EU's second most important sheep exporter, Spain, also redirected much of its exports during 2015 to booming markets in Africa. Spanish exports to Africa during the first eight months of 2015 increased by a massive 59pc.

"This left bigger opportunities on the continent for Irish exports, so that the value of Irish meat exports to the likes of Switzerland increased by 450pc, and 180pc to both Belgium and Denmark since 2010," said Mr Fennell.

However, it should be noted that the total volume of meat sold to these countries is still just one third of the 16,000t being sold to France.

Overall, sheep exports were up by 6pc in 2015, with half of this increase coming from increased volumes.

The increased volumes were on the back of 3pc higher carcase weights, and a 1pc increase in the national flock.

Price per kilo was also up by 2.5pc, or 9c/kg to 483c/kg last year, and up 12c/kg on the five year average.

While there was actually a 30,000hd increase in southern supplies to 2.6m, a 37,000hd decrease in Northern sheep processed through Southern plants left overall numbers similar to 2014 levels.

Unfavourable exchange rates and the introduction of country of origin labelling were cited by Mr Fennell as the reasons behind the swing.

"But as the year went on, I think the country of origin issue became less important," he said.

Almost perfect lambing conditions combined with good grass growth throughout the season boosted average carcase weights by 0.5kg to 20.1kg.

A significant part of this price gain was achieved during hogget season when average prices reached €5.26/kg, up 32c/kg on the previous year.

The strength of lamb disposals during much of 2015 suggests tight hogget supplies for the coming months.

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