beef meat

The US has lifted a 15-year-old import ban on EU beef

The British beef industry has hailed a major breakthrough in trade relations between the European Union and the US, which will allow beef from the EU to be exported to the States for the first time in more than 15 years.

The US imposed a blanket ban on EU beef imports in the wake of the BSE crisis of the 1990s, but on Friday the US Department for Agriculture (USDA) said it would publish new regulations that would reopen its market to EU beef products once more.

The new rules will come into force over the next 90 days.

The move will bring the US into line with scientific recommendations by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) dating back to 2005, and resolves a long-running trade dispute between the EU and the US. The European Commission welcomed the US’s decision, which it described as a “welcome, albeit late, step to abolish the unjustified ban and re-establish normal trading conditions”.

“The rule announcement from the USDA is a welcome move and certainly a step in the right direction”

Peter Hardwick, Eblex

EU beef was safe, it added, and the lifting of the US ban would send an important signal to other markets still closed to EU beef to restart imports.

This was echoed by Peter Hardwick, head of trade development for UK red meat body Eblex, who said other countries often took their lead from the US. “A resumption of trade between the EU and US would almost certainly pave the way for positive outcomes when we negotiate on market access for our products with these other countries.”

Eblex estimates UK beef and lamb exports to the US could be worth more than £60m a year, but Hardwick warned it would take some time until UK beef was actually sold to the US. “As it stands, there are currently no USDA-approved beef plants in the UK and exporting to the US will therefore not be immediate,” he said. “That said, the rule announcement from the USDA is a welcome move and certainly a step in the right direction.”

Before UK producers are able to export beef stateside, the US will need to recognise the UK’s meat inspection system as equivalent to US procedures. To that end, Defra, the beef industry and the Food Standards Agency are currently completing a questionnaire, setting out how meat controls, audits and inspections work in the UK.

A spokeswoman for Defra said: “We are working with markets across the world to open the doors to British food and drink and are now one step closer to striking a deal with the US that will give our farmers access to a very lucrative export market.”

The lifting of the US ban was welcomed across the Irish Sea, where Irish agriculture minister Simon Coveney said “the decision provides an opportunity for Ireland to penetrate a sector of the US beef market which can reward top quality, sustainably produced beef”.

Prior to the import ban imposed by the US in 1997, Ireland used to export about 110 tonnes of beef a year to the country. Food marketing body Bord Bia suggested Irish beef would be able to target a premium, niche market now, making the most of its grass-fed credentials.

The rule change announced by the USDA has been on the cards since April 2012, and Friday’s announcement finalised it. The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service said the new regulations demonstrated the US’ commitment to international standards and would “allow for the safe trade of bovines and bovine products, while still protecting the United States from the introduction of BSE”.

The US’ decision to allow EU beef imports again comes as the EU and the US are gearing up for talks on a major transatlantic free-trade deal, which is due to kick off in Brussels next week.