The UK first imported meat in the late 1800s and it continues to provide an important contribution to the UK meat market. In 2014 non-UK product accounted for just over 45% of total meat supplies. £683 million worth of chilled and frozen meat was imported from outside the EU and a further £599 million of processed products. Whilst to some this might seem a call to replace imported with British product there are a number of reasons why this would not be desirable.
For the purposes of this paper imports will be considered as products coming from Non-EU countries. A rigorous system is in place to ensure that all imported meat complies with EU legislation on animal health and public health.
Contribution to UK Economy
Unfortunately no official output statistics exist for the sector, but taking the difference between the value of duty paid imports and the value of these products at retail and food service level, it is estimated that the contribution of this sector to the UK economy is more than £1.8 to 2.0 billion.
Imported meat provides an important supply of product used by the catering, manufacturing and retail sectors. It supports employment throughout the food chain from plants cutting and packing for the retail sector, down to small cafes. Throughout the chain it provides employment for the service industries such as the ports, cold storage and freight sectors.
The Department of Health (England) recognises food poverty as ‘the inability to afford, or to have access to, food to make up a healthy diet’. Between 1st April 2014 and 31st March 2015 1,084,604 people used food banks.
Lower income families spend a greater percentage of their income on food and therefore higher prices have a greater impact on this sector of society. Meat is a valuable source of protein, vitamins and minerals and therefore all parts of society should have affordable access.
Self-sufficiency is not synonymous with food security as it fails to protect a country against disruptions to national supplies from animal disease etc. International trade has an important role to play in spreading and sharing risk and volatility. The key to food security is flexibility of supply.
Global Demand for Protein
On the global market the dynamics are changing with rising affluence in countries such as China, India and Brazil where there is an increasing demand for meat. Such developments provide opportunities for the UK to export parts of the carcase less popular with British consumers, but may also reduce availability of other cuts for the UK consumer.
Seasonality of Supply
Seasonal factors mean that ruminant production is not necessarily efficient and sustainable all year round, so that imported product can complement domestic production and keep a consistent year round supply, as in the case of lamb.
Matching Supply and Demand
Meat is a unique sector of the food market as meat production is a process of de-construction rather than manufacturing from a mix of raw materials. Imports thus play an important part in matching supply and demand. The UK market does not consume all parts of the carcase in the same proportions. Exports provide an opportunity to gain a better return for offal etc., whilst British consumers have a high demand for lamb legs, mince and chicken breast. This demonstrates how trade is two way and why imports cannot be ignored when pushing for increased exports.
Providing Appropriate Supplies to all in the Food Chain
Within the industry, the supermarkets tend to dominate, leaving the catering sector, which traditionally needs large volumes of a smaller group of cuts, more dependent on imports. The supply to the catering sector needs to be consistent over a sustained period of time. The specification requires that steaks for example be uniform in size, shape, colour, fat cover etc.
Because of the numbers of cattle slaughtered in any one abattoir in the UK, to collect a consignment like this would be extremely difficult, but with the larger throughput of animals in South America the quantity could be packed in a matter of days by one plant.
What we really need is robust import, domestic production and export markets fit for the 21st Century.
For further reading: IMTA Benefits of Imports Paper
How can we be sure that food imports are safe to eat?
Source BBC Learning Zone – © 2013.