Irish meat exports show remarkable resilience in 2020 given challenges

January 13, 2021

Exports in the Irish meat sector delivered a remarkable performance in 2020 given the challenges faced, according to Meat Industry Ireland (MII), the Ibec association representing the Irish meat processing sector. MII was commenting following the publication of Bord Bia’s Export Performance and Prospects report, which showed an increase of 2% in overall meat exports despite the major disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, the uncertainty of Brexit, and the loss of the Chinese market for beef exports. 

While the value of beef and poultry exports fell 2%, the pigmeat and sheepmeat sectors showed strong growth, up 14% and 12% respectively. The continued diversification into new markets was a welcome trend. Our pigmeat sector now leads the way with over 40% of exports destined for markets outside the UK and EU.  Our beef exports, while remaining highly reliant on the UK market, have showed significant diversification in recent years: in 2016, the year of the Brexit vote, the UK accounted for 56% of Irish beef exports, but this had reduced to 44% last year.  

Commenting on the export performance of the meat sector, MII Director Cormac Healy said: “Our members worked hard to find alternative markets for Irish meat exports in the face of an overnight shutdown of the restaurant and food service market channel due to Covid lockdowns.  Meat export companies and their staff had to be agile in approach to the changing market dynamics, all in the context of significantly changed working arrangements.

“The meat and livestock sector remains a corner stone of Ireland’s export economy and is particularly important to the economic well-being of rural Ireland.  While the value of beef exports fell slightly due to its significant reliance on food service sales and the absence of the Chinese market from May 2020, exceptional performance was delivered by both the pigmeat and sheepmeat sectors. The industry should be proud of the remarkable resilience it has shown in an extremely challenging year.”

MII hopes that 2021 will bring more stable conditions and better prospects in certain key market outlets but there are a number of areas that are critical:

1. Ongoing Covid impact – the restaurant and food service sector remain substantially shutdown due to Covid lockdowns.  This impacts on sales for all meat categories and results in fewer consumer purchase opportunities.  While retail business has and will continue to pick up some of this lost volume, the ongoing curtailment of food service is particularly challenging for higher value steak cut sales.

2. Post-Brexit trade disruption – Irish meat exporters are now coming to terms with the new, more complex, and costly trading environment in the aftermath of Brexit.  Additional paperwork, Customs and SPS formalities, transport delays and disruption to delivery schedules are being experienced, even in the quieter days of early January. Exporters are using the increased direct ferry routes to access our European markets but more capacity on these routes is essential.  The landbridge route will still be required to service customers but the new bureaucracy of transit arrangements remains challenging.  Flexibility from competent authorities, pragmatic approach in the early months and further streamlining of processes will be needed.

3. Exclusion from China – the near 8-month suspension of Ireland’s beef exports to China is a major loss to the entire beef sector in Ireland, just as sales to this exciting new market were set to ramp up. Government efforts to secure a resumption of this new business is critical. The impasse has been prolonged beyond reason and it is now time for An Taoiseach to engage with his counterpart in China in order to move the process forward quickly towards a resolution.

4. More resourcing of market access – diversification of Irish meat exports into new markets is essential to the long-term sustainability and development of the sector.  The diversification effort must be aided by increased Government resourcing to support new market access. In most cases, securing market access is dependent on Government-to-Government interactions to agree certification conditions.  Resourcing this area is not only about delivering on the target market priorities that we have in international markets, but we now face major new veterinary certification requirements for our trade with the UK from 1st April 2021.