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Ireland wins US Beef Export Approval

Irish beef will be the first from Europe to be sold in the United States in almost 16 years, after the lifting of a ban that had stemmed from an outbreak of mad cow disease in the late 1990s.

The United States had agreed to lift the ban last year, and Ireland is the first European country since then to have met the requirements ensuring its beef was safe. Although any Irish imports might represent only a tiny fraction of American meat sales, Ireland might be likely to find a market among buyers seeking beef raised in pastures and free from artificial growth hormones.

“This U.S. market is a huge prize given its size and the demand we know exists there for premium grass-fed beef,” Ireland’s agriculture minister, Simon Coveney, said in an official announcement Monday on Irish national radio. “We now have first-mover advantage as a result of being the first E.U. member state to gain entry. There is also the large Irish-American community, which will be a key target of our promotional efforts.”

United States authorities imposed the ban over health fears during an epidemic across Europe in the late 1990s that led to mass culling of cattle herds.

The formal name for mad cow disease is bovine spongiform encephalopathy, an affliction that kills cattle by attacking the animals’ brains and central nervous systems. If tainted meat is consumed, the illness is believed to be capable of causing fatal neurological disorders in humans, mainly through the incurable variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease.

Beef prices in the United States have risen in recent years as a result of droughts and higher feed prices. Australia is a leading exporter of beef to the United States, although most of that meat comes from industrial feed lots — not the open-pasture beef that many Irish farms produce.

The demand for premium grass-fed, hormone-free beef in the United States is growing an estimated 20 percent a year, Mr. Coveney said. Much of that growth is driven by higher check, table-service operations, said Hudson Riehle, senior vice president for research at the National Restaurant Association.

Last year, the United States imported around 4 billion euros, or about $4.8 billion, worth of such beef from countries like Paraguay and Uruguay. Mr. Coveney estimates that the market could be worth €100 million to the Irish beef industry in 2015.

The weak euro should also help Ireland’s export drive, Mr. Coveney said.

The approval to begin exports follows a week-long inspection by the American authorities of Irish beef production systems in July, after the formal lifting of the ban in March. The U.S. also imports Irish pork products.

The Irish government hopes the United States approval might also open other foreign markets.

“This is the culmination of two years of intensive work to prove our credentials as a supplier of highest quality premium beef,” Mr. Coveney said. The Irish lobbying efforts included playing host to two visits by the United States secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack.

Authorities in Ireland are now in a position to authorize individual beef-processing plants to export to the United States. Mr. Coveney said that his department had been in talks with interested producers and that the work would intensify so trade could begin as soon as possible.

Paul Finnerty, chief executive of ABP Food Group, which is Europe’s biggest beef processor and has farms in Britain, Ireland and Poland, said the reopening of the American market was “a significant opportunity,” given the demand in the United States for grass-fed beef.

“We have been working on the ground in the U.S. over two years now and sense a real opportunity for our business,” he said in an email. “We have been in negotiations with a number of leading food service and retail players, and we are expecting to make an announcement very shortly.”

But some farming organizations were more cautious. Patrick Kent, president of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association, said the news was good only in theory — unless big buyers proved willing to pay more for beef. “Farmers will remain skeptical, given the ruthless downward manipulation of prices by the meat industry over the past 12 months,” he said in a statement. “They are still waiting to see concrete benefits from previous announcements of new markets.”

Meat Industry Ireland, a trade group representing beef producers, said it welcomed the announcement. But it cautioned that further clarity was required on the approval process for producers, predicting that the exports would be a niche market concentrated on premium meats sold in relatively low volumes.

Source: www.nytimes.com - 5 Jan 2015