Value of Irish beef sales to Britain up 10%

The highest level of UK beef imports for the month of January in at least the last decade is very important news for the Irish beef industry, because 47% of its exports (in value terms) went to the UK in 2023, writes Stephen Cadogan.

Newfound buoyancy in the UK beef market is a bit of good news to take farmers’ minds off weather worries.

The highest level of UK beef imports for the month of January in at least the last decade is very important news for the Irish beef industry, because 47% of its exports (in value terms) went to the UK in 2023.

And the growth in imports (both monthly and yearly) was driven by the competitive price of Irish beef, and by robust UK demand, said the UK’s Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB).

The 23,900t of fresh and frozen beef that the UK imported in January was 29% (5,300t) more than was imported during December and 34% (6,000t) more than in January 2023.

British government data shows that about 18,000t of this came from Ireland. The trade is driven by a wider-than-ever price difference between UK and Irish cattle. In January, Irish steers averaged about 70c/kg cheaper at the factories.

In 2023, the value of exports of Irish beef to the UK increased by 10% to reach an estimated €1.3bn.

The industry can be hopeful of continuing that trend, because meat has risen again in popularity for UK consumers, despite pressure from rising food prices.

And that is a rare occurrence to be thankful for because the longer-term picture revealed in new UK statistics is that the consumption of primary and processed cuts of beef reduced from 14.5kg per person annually in 1980 to only 5kg in 2022.

Some of the beef shortfall was cancelled out by an increasing amount of meat consumed in ready meals, pies, spreads and canned products.

But the figures sum up the huge challenge which the Irish beef industry faced in the market which still takes nearly half of its exports (in value terms).

According to the AHDB, most of the beef cuts sales were lost in the 1990s, coinciding with the UK’s BSE and Foot and Mouth disease setbacks. It was in March, 1996, that the British government first admitted BSE could be transmitted to humans. 

The outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the UK in 2001 further damaged beef consumption (more than six million cattle and sheep were killed in order to control the disease).

Many British meat eaters have also turned their backs on other red meats, whereas the sales of white meats and convenience products increased.

According to the government’s Defra Family Food Survey, UK consumers reduced their combined household consumption of beef, pigmeat and sheep meat by almost 62% from 1980 to 2022, whilst chicken meat in particular gained a share of the market.

In 1980, pigmeat was the most consumed protein source, followed by beef, lamb, chicken, and fish. But the share-out of meat proteins shifted significantly, as consumer lifestyles and preferences evolved.

Sales of chicken gained by about one-third. But the statistics indicate that many of the meat cuts no longer bought by households found their way instead into convenience foods such as meat pies and ready meals. 

Consumption of this category is estimated to have doubled from 1980 to 2022, and it is now the form in which most British consumers eat meat, accounting for up to 350 grams per person per week.

Ireland is fighting for its share of this market, and is most successful in value-added pigmeat, with the UK taking 70% of our exports of products such as cooked bacon, toppings and ingredients.

And 85% of our exports of “added-value” poultry products go to the UK, such as cooked chicken.

In 2023, the UK took about €125m of our “value-added” beef exports, such as ingredients for foodservice and manufacturing, and products such as burgers, to meet the growing consumer demand for meal solutions. Such products can usefully increase the value for Irish beef processors of traditionally lower priced cuts and trimmings.

Next to convenience foods, British consumers get most of their meat in cuts of chicken, averaging up to 220g per person per week, followed by pigmeat at about 200g, beef at 100g, and lamb at 25g per person per week. Fish comes in at about 80g, not changed much since 1980, when fish eating was estimated at about 90g.

There have been more UK shocks for the meat industry over the last four years. Even chicken cuts lost out, with sales for in-home consumption lower in 2022 than the previous two years, before recovering in 2023 with an estimated growth of 2.4%.

Retail data shows that volumes for beef, pork and lamb purchased all declined over the last four years. In this new era for the meat industry, the increased cost of food took over from animal welfare, the environment, and health reasons, as the consumer’s main reason for cutting back on meat consumption. 

With the UK’s rate of grocery price inflation reaching an all-time peak of 17.5% in March 2023, before slowing to under 10% for the first time in 16 months by year-end, consumers reduced their meat purchases or traded down to cheaper protein sources, in order to cut their ever-increasing grocery bills.

AHDB consumer research since 2015 shows that price has been a key factor for UK shoppers when choosing meat and has become the most important factor for 78% of consumers.

Producers of chicken are least affected, it has become the cheapest meat protein. And consumers find that cuts such as chicken breast are easy to cook with, compared to red meat. They are also more likely to perceive chicken and fish as important for a healthy diet, less fatty, and more likely to be eaten in their household than red meat.

Not only is chicken seen by consumers as the most versatile meat; it also appeals to price-sensitive shoppers, with average prices paid over the last two years being consistently around £1/kg less than pork, in the UK.

Away from the shops, red meat does better in the out-of-home market, although this category of sales has not yet recovered to pre-Covid levels.

With UK grocery price inflation now at its lowest since March 2022, Irish exporters can hope for greater uplift in red meat exports across the Irish Sea, unless new Brexit taxes at the end of April. on imports from the EU, disrupt the market.

Along with increased beef shipments, the first quarter of 2024 has seen firm demand for lamb, and high prices, with the Easter and Ramadan religious festivals making lamb the protein of choice for many.