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The view from Europe on free trade with Canada

Beef exporters will need to be patient before cashing in on new EU opportunities

The prospect of a major increase in Canadian beef exports into the European Union, following the recent ending of negotiations for the EU-Canada free trade agreement, hung over this year’s SIAL food fair in Paris as a significant trading change, although one that is very much lodged in the “business pending” tray.

For seasoned Canadian beef exporters, such as Heritage Angus Beef owner Dr. Christoph Weder of Hudson’s Hope, B.C., the new agreement is an opening which could result in a “doubling, tripling or even quadrupling” of his company’s 250-tonne-a-year beef delivery into the EU.

For producers from within the EU, however, it represents a serious challenge to their internal business club, prompting the response that such agreements work both ways and that they have much to gain from being given easier access to Canadian consumers.

The reality for both sides, of course, is that while the negotiations have been concluded, the EU sign-off tasks of translation, followed by an approval process involving both the EU Council and the European Parliament, will shift the real conclusion point well into 2016.

“This is just the beginning of a very long process,” Xavier Poncin, executive director of SIAL Canada, told Canadian Cattlemen. “We could be talking two, four or even six years before this venture is finalized.”

He was in no doubt, however, that no matter how long the EU sign-off took, it would be worth it for Canada in the long term, not only for the cheese industry, with its potential exports increase of 246 per cent, but also for beef farmers.

“The big beef thing in Europe, of course, is to have no hormones, so it will be a good challenge for some Canadian farmers to change the way they do things,” he said, adding that a little change, if necessary, would be well worthwhile if it meant gaining access to the EU’s 500 million consumers.

“It’s a big market, so let’s go for it,” he told a public forum at SIAL Paris, which is one of the world’s largest food trade fairs, attracting 150,000 international visitors to the French capital every autumn.

Weder has already been “going for it” for four years as an exporter into the EU, working in tune with the EU’s current zero tariff-free quota requirements. During that time, he’s had to cope with the demands attached to selling hormone-free, grain-finished beef under a 45,000-tonne quota which Canada shares with the U.S., Argentina and Uruguay.

Speaking from the Canada Beef stand at SIAL, therefore, he was predictably positive in welcoming the new free trade agreement, while also being clear in his view that growing the EU market for Canadian beef would take time.

“Personally, I think we could double, triple or even quadruple our own company’s export into the EU,” he said.  “So far as Canada in total being able to find the 50,000 tonnes of beef that Europe is now willing to allow in, however; well I don’t know how we will do it. It’s going to be a tall order. The supply of cattle for doing that is not there, and there’s also the question of whether or not the EU market is ready to absorb 50,000 tonnes of Canadian beef.”

The U.S., Australia and others, he added, were already running good beef export operations into the EU, sustaining strong supply routes and relationships. These were links which Canadian suppliers would need to “unseat” if they were to fully accept the new EU beef “invitation.”

There was also plenty of evidence within SIAL’s multi-country meat display sector that the “others” in the marketplace aren’t exactly getting ready to roll over and let Canadian beef sweep into Europe.

“While we support the principle of free trade agreements, the devil is often in the detail,” said Scotland’s farm minister, Richard Lochhead, fresh from spending more than two hours on the Quality Meat Scotland stand, supporting his own country’s exporters.

“We will be monitoring the new agreement closely, therefore, to ensure that our producers are not put at a disadvantage by this.”

An equally strong message was given to Canadian cattlemen by Ireland’s farm minister Simon Coveney, who, while also expressing his approval of free trade, said: “We need to be competitive as a country, it’s really as simple as that. What Ireland needs to do is to make sure our farm products are seen and treated as premium products in markets across the world, all produced safely by family farmers in a sustainable way.

“Obviously, in that context, we have offensive and defensive interests with every trade deal that arises. I fought very hard, in fact, against giving Canada too big a beef quota into the EU. The settlement would probably have been twice what it is without the stand we took.

“While we need to protect ourselves in such agreements, however, if we want to trade with Canada, which clearly has opportunities for Irish producers, then there has to be some give-and-take and hopefully some balance at the end of the day.”

SIAL also featured countless export initiatives from the 40 other counties represented at the event, most notable contributions coming from Brazil, New Zealand and Japan.

Programa Carne Angus Certificada, the certified Brazilian Angus Association, for example, announced a determined drive to increase exports of quality beef into the EU.

“We’re not a country which is just about basic beef anymore, drawn from Zebu cattle,” said Programa director Reynaldo Salvador. “Our breeders, around 500 in total, are sending 500,000 very fine crossbred steers for slaughter every year, all from certified Angus cattle, and a lot of that beef is available for export.”

New Zealand beef and lamb exporters, Taylor Preston, with an annual intake of 1,500,000 sheep, lambs, goats, calves, venison and beef to market, have been operating in France for 20 years. They used SIAL to unveil a new online trading platform which they believe “top-end” French consumers are ready and waiting for.

As for the Japanese, they made their first appearance at the exhibition with their highly priced Wagyu beef.

A challenging and crowded marketplace, therefore, but one which Canada Beef’s SIAL companies are ready to embrace.

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