The importation of beef and lamb into Ireland is a function of supply and demand dynamics. It is influenced by factors like price, currency exchange rates and consumer preferences. According to CSO figures, the vast bulk of imports of lamb and beef into Ireland are from the EU. These figures show that in 2009, some 34,374 tonnes of beef and 1,144 tonnes of lamb were imported into Ireland. Up to the end of August 2010, some 25,099 tonnes of beef and 905 tonnes of lamb were imported. Of the 34,374 tonnes of beef imported into Ireland last year, almost two thirds came from UK, 58% of which was from Great Britain and 5% from Northern Ireland. The majority of these UK imports were cow carcases. The reason for this trade is that the UK cull cow price tends to be approximately 15c/kg lower than the equivalent Irish price. Several Irish meat plants import UK cow carcases to debone and resell, mainly to manufacturing and wholesale customers on the Continent. Uruguay and Brazil are the principal non-EU suppliers of beef into Ireland, mainly steak cuts which tend to be used in the lower value end of the food service and catering sectors. Other EU countries, such as the Netherlands, also sell some steak cuts into the Irish market. This usually occurs during the summer months when these products tend to be in strong demand and the price is at a seasonal high.
Of the 1,144 tonnes of sheep meat imported into the Irish market last year, some 90% came from the UK, 84% of which was from Great Britain and 6% from Northern Ireland. Most of these imports were carcasses or cuts from UK lambs or hoggets. The Irish price was slightly higher at certain times of the year, driven by a weakening in sterling. These exports would mainly have been destined for the lower value end of the food service and catering sectors. Just 4% of sheep meat imports into Ireland last year came from New Zealand. It is noteworthy that the uptake of Bord Bia quality assured Irish lamb has increased among the main retailers in the Irish market. This has enabled more effective promotion and further improved consumer understanding of this important mark. It is worth pointing out that these import figures are relatively small when compared to our export figures for beef and lamb. In 2009, we exported over 13 times as much beef and over 40.5 times as much lamb as we imported. In the same year, we produced almost 15 times as much beef and 48 times as much lamb as we imported. This highlights the benefit of being a small open economy and the importance of free trade with our EU partners to the beef and sheep meat sectors and, by extension, to our economy as a whole. Both sectors make an extremely valuable contribution to the overall economy. Almost 99% of Irish beef exports now go to valuable EU markets, with annual exports valued at €1.4 billion in 2009. The Irish sheep sector is worth around €250 million, with over two thirds of its output exported to the EU.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
Food Harvest 2020 sets out a vision for Irish agrifood and fisheries for the next ten years. It provides a sound framework for the development of both sectors. For beef, the report sees the maintenance of Irish beef's premium position in EU markets and closing the price differential between Irish and other premium competitors in those markets as the main challenges facing the sector. Against this background, the report recommends the development and enhancement of a number of policy initiatives to underpin the market performance of Irish beef. In particular, it envisages a focus on genetic advances to drive productivity and product quality. A combination of better quality breeding and better carcase quality at a younger age, together with genetic advances, can potentially deliver greater profitability at farm level. An important spin-off from the significant growth expected in the dairy sector will be an increased supply of calves for rearing and finishing. Complementary Teagasc initiatives, such as the better farm beef programme, offer the best route for producer viability and growth through the adoption of best practice at farm level.
Increased product differentiation, based on predominantly grass-based Irish beef, has the potential to build on the success of current marketing strategies. Collectively, these strategies can provide enhanced returns to the producer and close the current price differential for beef in high value EU markets. The beef industry has, in the 2020 report, set itself a target of 20% growth in output value over the next decade. Achieving this target will depend on increased communication, collaboration and consolidation across the supply chain. The Deputy can rest assured that my Department will continue to work with industry stakeholders in pursuit of the vision for the beef sector set out in the report. Food Harvest 2020 also includes specific recommendations for the sheep sector. It envisages that over the coming years, demand for sheep meat on the European market will outstrip production levels, which could provide opportunities for exporting countries such as Ireland. This should provide the potential for better returns, as long as the industry can continue the market and product diversification which has been evident in recent years. At producer level, there is likely to be improved price prospects, as long as an increased focus on production, efficiency and product quality is evident. Based on a renewed commercial focus by the sheep sector, building consumption on the domestic market and through the implementation of the recommendations of Food Harvest 2020, the industry has targeted a growth in output value of 20% by 2020.