Collapse in beef market feared

 

THE Government is fearful of a collapse in the beef market following news that the Russians are seeking an extension of their partial ban on Irish beef.

The Russian demands were revealed yesterday by the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Yates, as he gave details of diplomatic and other moves being planned by the Government to lift an Egyptian ban on live cattle imports.

The Tanaiste, Mr Spring, last night spoke to the Egyptian Foreign Minister, Mr Amr Moussa, about the ban. Mr Spring forwarded technical information to Mr Moussa and will speak to him again today.

Russia is Ireland's largest single market for beef and Egypt is our second most valuable market.

Mr Yates said yesterday that the Russian authorities had given clear indications they were seeking an extension to the existing ban imposed last October 11th. The Russians signed a three month protocol which banned beef from three counties, Cork Tipperary and Monaghan, because of the rise in the number of BSE cases.

While the Minister refused to name the counties which might be included in the new protocol to be agreed in February, it was learned last night that the Russians want to exclude Limerick, Cavan, Meath, Donegal, and Wexford beef from their contracts.

All these counties have had more than four BSE cases in 1996. Incidence of the disease here rose from 16 cases in 1995 to 74 in 1996. Limerick had five cases, Cavan four, Wexford eight, Meath five and Donegal five during last year.

Mr Yates said he would resist the Russian demands as "unacceptable and impractical in some regards" but admitted that a preliminary investigation of the Russian demands showed the rest of the State could fill a Russian contract of up to 120,000 tonnes.

The protocol would, however, exclude 40 per cent of potential Irish beef production from Russian contracts. It would be difficult to administer but not impossible to operate, he said.

He said the Russians could still have their pick from 570,000 steers from counties outside the extended ban they are proposing. He gave an assurance that nothing would happen until early February.

Mr Yates's main concern yesterday appeared to focus on the possible collapse of cattle prices since the Egyptian decision to halt live cattle imports from Ireland.

He said the prevailing price for cattle in Ireland should mirror the 90p per lb price in the UK. He would be concerned if there was any move by meat factories to inflict damage by lowering prices for winter fatteners.

He said he would be involved in direct dialogue with the meat factories to tell them they had very serious responsibilities. Given the thin volumes at this time and the buoyancy of the British market, there was no need for panic, he suggested.

He said there was agreement at Cabinet that an attempt should be made through the EU to create a floor price for cattle by amending the EU intervention rules. This may be necessary if there was any abuse of the market position.

He said there was no basis for any speculation of a fall in price.

Reaction to the loss of the Egyptian live trade and possible restrictions on Ireland's largest beef market was swift and predictable. Fianna Fail accused Mr Yates of failing to defend his brief and the farm organisations demanded that the Minister protect cattle prices.

. The Department of Agriculture told journalists last night that in future it would publish information on BSE cases on a monthly basis instead of revealing it on a daily basis as it has done up to now.