Irish beef trade faces new challenge in export market


IRISH beef exporters face a serious new challenge to their share of the Russian beef market following the lifting by Russia of a ban on beef from Argentina.

The Irish Times learned last night that Russia will allow the immediate importation of up to 50,000 tonnes following a visit to Argentina by a veterinary team, led by Russia's chief veterinarian, Dr Alivov.

Dr Alivov also led the veterinary team which imposed a ban on beef from eight Irish counties last year because of the rising levels of BSE here. The trade with Ireland will be reviewed in five weeks in the light of the latest BSE figures.

The return of Argentina to the Russian beef market comes at a sensitive time for Irish beef exporters who built up their £200 million share of the trade when the ban was in place. Now Ireland faces a possible extension of a BSE-related ban.

The Russian Federation is Ireland's largest beef export market, and before the ban was imposed Ireland supplied up to one-third of the Russian requirement, exporting more than 140,000 tonnes for consumption mainly in Moscow and St Petersburg.

Ireland's share of the Russian beef market has grown steadily since 1994 when it was estimated to be worth more than £50 million. In 1995 Ireland exported 120,000 tonnes of beef worth £140 million, and last year the trade was worth more than £200 million.

Russia's Deputy Agriculture Minister, Mr Vladimir Shcherbak, made the announcement about Argentinian beef in Moscow last week when he said businesses could now buy between 30,000 and 50,000 tonnes.

He said the delegation led by Dr Avilov had concluded that the health of the herd, slaughtering and meat packing were up to Russian standards.

Russia banned the import of Argentinian beef some years ago because of foot and mouth disease there and reports of the widespread use of angel dust to fatten cattle.

An Bord Bia said yesterday that Russia had continued to take large quantities of Irish beef despite the eight-county ban imposed by the veterinary authorities.

The Russians excluded beef from Cork, Monaghan and Tipperary early last year and, when BSE figures began to rise, included Limerick, Cavan, Wexford, Meath and Donegal in the ban. This has meant that the Russian contracts are being filled from 60 per cent of the Irish beef herd. The protocol agreement covering the ban is to be reviewed in about five weeks' time.

In January and February 19 cases of BSE were recorded, but most of these were in counties already locked out of the Russian market. The BSE figures, which are now issued monthly, will be released on the last day of the month.

It is known that no cases were recorded in the second week in March, the first clear week since figures began to rise in July last year.