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Beef is one of the major agricultural products traded around the world and after brexit is one of the key questions for Scotland.  We consume a lot of the beef we produce in the UK and we’re a net importer of beef overall. In 2018* the UK imported 289,500 tonnes of fresh or frozen beef, of which over 94% came from the EU – the majority from Ireland.  Exports from outside the EU were less than 6%.  The UK import almost a third as much processed beef as we do fresh/frozen, of which most comes from the EU (mainly from Ireland, a little from Sweden, France and Germany) and about 25% from outside the EU (all from Brazil).  Much of this processed beef will have been UK carcasses which were exported to Ireland for processing before coming back to UK shelves (we haven’t made up for the losses in processing capacity from the BSE years).


The UK exported 110,500 tonnes of fresh or frozen beef, of which almost 90% goes to the EU, and 38,400 tonnes of offal – with the EU taking just over half (again – often destined to return in processed from).


Were import tariffs imposed on beef then potentially we could see consumer prices in the UK rise.  However if tariffs are removed to keep the price down for the consumer, the downside is that we can’t actively discriminate against non-EU beef, often produced at much lower cost than in the UK or EU, and which would also be able to come in tariff free.  This may be eased by the tariff rate quotas (TRQs) that the EU has which offer limited tariff free access to some non-EU countries - when the UK leaves the EU some of these existing TRQs will come back to the UK providing a means to continue to import some beef without tariffs and without needing to opening up the whole market.  The volumes are relatively small however – perhaps only around 10 – 15% of our total imported volume.


Under WTO rules it would be possible to set minimum standards which apply to all beef coming into a country, but these can’t just be arbitrary ways to shut off some imports – there needs to be a good reason, and we need to be prepared for those countries who are effectively shut out to make a fuss.  For example the EU won’t accept hormone treated beef from the US and this has created a decades-long battle between the US, who claim that beef from hormone treated animals is perfectly safe, and therefore not a good enough reason to ban it from the EU, and the EU who are holding firm on their standards.

*See The UK cattle yearbook 2019, AHDB for more information.

More information about the effect on the UK beef industry can be found here.

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