I propose to take Questions Nos. 85 and 89 together.
Aggregate cattle supplies at Department-approved meat plants to the end of January 2014 are up almost 10% on the corresponding period in 2012 with strong increases recorded in the steer, heifer and cull cow categories. This higher throughput has led to factories giving preference to certain types of stock that are better suited to the requirements of their retail customers. Prices for prime steers and heifers have remained relatively stable but the young bull trade is challenging at present as age and weight issues continue to affect demand. However, I note that the young bull kill has increased by 50% between week 1 and week 5 of 2014. The Irish beef industry is hugely dependent on exports and the need to ensure that it is producing efficiently for overseas markets cannot be ignored.
Delays in young bull slaughtering are undoubtedly putting pressure on producer profit margins but neither I nor any Minister for Agriculture can interfere in a trade that is cyclical in nature and prone to short-term price fluctuations. I am entirely sympathetic to all those farmers facing difficulties in getting their cattle slaughtered but cattle prices are determined by the interplay between supply and demand and I have no function in regard to commercial transactions between meat factories and their suppliers.
It is the responsibility of the industry - in this instance, processors and farmers working together - to manage the type and volume of cattle being brought to market in order that the supply chain operates for the benefit of both parties and does not undermine the viability of bull beef production systems for either winter finishers or suckler farmers. I understand that producer and meat processor representatives have recently engaged in dialogue with a view to resolving the short-term oversupply of young bulls. I would encourage the various bodies to continue this discussion and I have called for this on many occasions.
With regard to the price differential between Irish and UK cattle, a number of factors have been identified to explain why Irish born cattle command lower prices than their British equivalents. These include a British consumer preference for indigenous product, as well as an additional transport and processing cost in supplying that market. Ireland's trade with Britain accounts for 53% of our beef export volumes and, at around 250,000 tonnes in 2013, is equivalent to 750,000 cattle, with a high level of penetration in the multiple retail sector.
One of the main difficulties in marketing young bulls older than 16 months is that these animals are outside the specifications preferred by the UK market. This is a major disadvantage at present because the UK market has effectively become the highest priced beef market in the EU. The potential to grow the live trade to Britain is also constrained by the labelling system operated by the retail chains in regard to cattle born in this country and exported live for finishing and processing in the UK. The retailers' long-standing policy is to market British and Irish beef separately. This means that beef must be sourced from animals originating in one country, that is, born, reared and slaughtered in the same country. In addition, logistical difficulties arise when a small number of Irish born animals are slaughtered in a UK meat plant. Under mandatory EU labelling rules, these carcases have to be deboned in a separate batch and packaged and labelled accordingly, thereby incurring additional cost for the processor.
While Bord Bia has repeatedly raised the labelling issue with British retailers over the years, there is no indication that its marketing policy is likely to be reversed soon. Nevertheless, in its ongoing interaction with British consumers, Bord Bia will continue to pursue all opportunities, including any change in labelling policies, to maximise the full potential of the beef and livestock trade with our largest trading partner. In regard to allegations of anti-competitive practices by meat plants, if Deputies have information to substantiate such charges, I would like to know about it, and the Competition Authority ought to know about it also, if that is the case.
For non-bull beef that was sold last year, we are in the unusual position of having the average price paid for this beef here in Ireland at about 106% of the EU average, whereas historically that figure would have been in the low 90s. We have a particular problem with the UK market, which is where most of our beef goes, because UK consumers have a very strong demand for British-sourced beef and retailers have a particular specification issue with bull beef that is over 16 months of age. These are issues the market will have to resolve.