Scotland counts cost of lost meat exports after Brexit

Figures on UK trade data released this week have confirmed the expected slump in export trade in red meat with the European Union – with beef exports during January down by two thirds on the 2020 figure, sheep meat exports fell 40% and fresh pork by 70%.

Putting the value of the slump at around £7 million to Scottish traders for beef and lamb alone in the first two months of the year, Quality Meat Scotland (QMS) yesterday said the figures confirmed the challenges predicted for the red meat sector under new terms and conditions of trade outside the EU.

Acknowledging that the coronavirus pandemic had also contributed to the slowing of trade, the organisation’s director of economic services, Stuart Ashworth, said:

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“Trade has also been affected by pre-emptive measures taken in December 2020 and changed demand in export markets as a result of measures taken to control the spread of Covid.”

This had been particularly affected by the loss of eating out trade across Europe and restrictions by some non-EU countries on taking product from abattoirs and processors which had suffered Covid outbreaks among their work forces.

But he also pointed out that reduced exports could impact on the need for imports.

“And that was the case during January with beef imports falling 18% and fresh pig meat imports falling 47% while sheep meat imports were unchanged on year earlier levels during January.”

Ashworth said official details of trade volumes for February and March were not yet available, but the level of trade is expected to have increased as traders become more familiar with the administrative requirements of trading in a Brexit world.

Early reports indicate that while exports stood at 35% of normal levels in January, this had risen closer to 40% in February.

He added that following the pre-Brexit rush, volumes of cattle and sheep going to slaughter in the early months of the year had fallen, helping to stabilise farm gate prices and reduce the need to export to maintain market equilibrium.

In contrast UK abattoir volumes of pig meat climbed ahead in February after lower production in January. This had contributed to some cooling of pig prices through February – an outcome which could be exacerbated by constraints on pig meat exports to China from plants affected by Covid.

“With the December 2020 Scottish agricultural census reporting a decline in slaughter cattle numbers and the number of hoggs carried into 2021, cattle and sheep numbers are likely to remain tight in the short term,” Ashworth told producers.

Meanwhile, the British Meat Processors Association said that for the UK government to dismiss trade disruption at the borders as ‘teething problems’ was no longer credible.

Claiming systemic weaknesses in the current export system, along with mountains of additional bureaucratic red tape, the organisation yesterday warned of a potential permanent loss of trade of between 20 and 50 per cent, worth between £90 and £120 million to Great Britain.

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