Coveney on US beef export mission


MINISTER FOR Agriculture Simon Coveney met his US counterpart Tom Vilsack yesterday “to encourage him to make a decision as early as possible” about resuming Irish beef exports to the US.

There has been a 12-year break because of the BSE scare.

Washington wants to lift the ban on European beef to enable the US to export its own beef to China and Korea, Mr Coveney said. To do so it must recognise the internationally accepted standards established by the Paris-based World Organisation for Animal Health, the OIE.

Because Ireland has the same “controlled risk” OIE classification as the US and Canada “there is no scientific reason any longer why Irish beef shouldn’t be exported to the US”, he said.

“The main purpose of my visit is to remind the key decision-makers – the most important one being the agriculture secretary – that this is something that the Irish Government is really anxious to see progress on,” Mr Coveney said.

“Our beef industry will be very excited at the prospect of carving out a niche for themselves in the US market.”

Beef exports comprise €1.8 billion of Ireland’s annual €9 billion food and drink exports. Although the US imported €463 million of Irish food and drink last year, making it Ireland’s fifth largest market in the sector, none of that was Irish beef or lamb.

This year two Republican senators, Mike Johanns of Nebraska and Charles Grassley of Iowa, wrote to the US Department of Agriculture asking it to produce a BSE ruling so the US could export to Asia. That letter was signed by 50 legislators. Mr Coveney called on the two senators “to thank them and to encourage them to continue to push for a result”.

On March 16th, the US Department of Agriculture introduced a new BSE rule. A two-month consultation period followed, during which the Irish Government weighed in. It is now up to Mr Vilsack to enact the new rule, which is not subject to a vote in Congress. The fact that this is an election year complicates the process but Mr Coveney is hopeful it will be completed by early 2013.

Mr Coveney also discussed a draft bill – it would create 10,500 two-year, reciprocal E3 visas for Irish people working in the US and Americans working in Ireland – with Senator Grassley, who is the ranking member on the judiciary committee.

“There is a strong hope that it will get passed in the Senate,” Mr Coveney said. “The problem is how you get it through the House . They’re working on attaching it to a bill that needs to be passed. If it’s a stand-alone piece of legislation it may be difficult.”

The Minister met senior officials at the office of the US Trade Representative, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. Whiskey and cream liqueur comprise two-thirds of Irish food and drink exports to the US.

He will travel to Chicago today for meetings with food and drink industry contacts until Friday.

Mr Coveney does not expect a large volume of Irish beef to be exported to the US. “We would target the higher end steak cuts into Irish restaurants and pubs, especially on the east coast. There is a premium for grass-fed beef and all Irish beef is produced on a grass-based system.”

A similar process is being followed to overcome obstacles to exporting Irish lamb to the US. It too is blocked because of past cases of TSE, including scrapie.

“Sheep meat is far less contentious than beef,” Mr Coveney said.