Bord Bia report shows UK is still our bread and butter

Cantillon: Food and drink exports hit €12.6bn, but Brexit could take a big bite out of that

Tara McCarthy, CEO of Bord Bia, at the launch of  Bord Bia’s Export Performance and Prospects 2017-2018 report. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell

Tara McCarthy, CEO of Bord Bia, at the launch of Bord Bia’s Export Performance and Prospects 2017-2018 report. Photograph: Iain White/Fennell

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Brexit cast a rather long shadow over the launch of Bord Bia’s latest annual export numbers yesterday.

While the agency was keen to highlight 2017 as another bumper year for food and drink exports, which rose to a record €12.6 billion in value terms, the scale of the sector’s reliance on the UK is striking.

It accounts for 51 per cent of beef exports (worth €1.27 billion); 56 per cent of pigmeat exports (worth €399 million); 80 per cent of poultry exports (worth €236 million); 24 per cent of sheepmeat exports (worth €66 million); and 62 per cent of prepared consumer food exports (worth €1.8 billion).

Dairy, as a whole, is less reliant, with the UK accounting for 24 per cent of the total €4 billion exports, but certain commodities – butter and cheddar cheese, for example – have a greater dependence.

Ireland’s €230 million mushroom industry, often touted as the canary in the Brexit coalmine, with many businesses going wallop on foot of sterling’s slump last year, is nearly entirely reliant, with UK buyers accounting for 99 per cent of the trade.

All told, the UK accounted for 35 per cent of Irish food and drink exports last year, which equates to nearly €4.5 billion, albeit this was down from 41 per cent in 2015 and 37 per cent in 2016.

Ireland’s tricky Brexit dance of not wanting to alienate its most lucrative and loyal customer while trying to build supply lines elsewhere was exemplified by chief executive Tara McCarthy’s comments.

She said Ireland was not walking away from the UK while so much was still up in the air, but in the same breath she said market diversification was progressive and would be key to meeting the Brexit challenge.

She said the agency was hoping a forthcoming trade mission to China might herald the formal restart of Irish beef exports there, which may be crucial if the UK market diminishes.

Either way, it seems many businesses in the agri-food sector are still playing a wait-and-see game, banking on a free trade deal emerging somewhere along the line.

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