The resumption of normal beef exports from the UK, expected within weeks, looks set to spark a clamour for prime Scottish beef cuts.

At a Quality Meat Scotland conference in Dundee, delegates were told that Continental consumers were eagerly awaiting the return of Scotch beef, news that will hearten farmers north of the Border.

High priority potential export markets included France and Benelux, while QMS said it had "a watching brief" on possible small-volume, high-value sales to new EU member states, the Middle East and south east Asia.

But Italy could prove to offer some of the richest pickings for Scotch beef.

Before the ban on exports was enforced ten years ago, as a measure to prevent the spread of BSE, Italy was a major importer of Scotch beef, taking around 15,000 tonnes of high value cuts annually.

And there are good signs that a ten-year absence of normal exports hasn't affected the reputation of Scotch beef.

Giacinto Fusetti, a Milan-based meat wholesaler, told The Grocer: "Scotch beef is regarded in Italy as the very finest in the world and when the ban is lifted we would take all the beef in Scotland if we could - as long as the price is right."

There would seem to be plenty of room to manoeuvre on price.

European Commission figures show that in the week to March 19, the average price paid to UK farmers for prime heifers was £1.99/kg deadweight - 76p less than the Italian equivalent price.

In 1995, the year before the imposition of the UK beef export ban, Scotland exported 42,000 tonnes of beef, worth £120m and representing 20% of its production.

Nevertheless, despite the appeal of exports, Scotland's largest export customer is likely to remain England, which consumes 70% of Scotch beef.