By Neil Shand

CEO of the National Beef Association

This time last year, the UK was in a state of desperate uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic started to make its presence felt in the UK.

The beginning of March saw the start of panic buying and empty supermarket shelves as fear of the unknown and a lack of consumer confidence in the supply chain started to set in.

Following the lockdown imposed on March 23, 2020, the beef industry rose to the challenge of supplying its consumers with home-produced beef. While prices initially dropped, it soon became clear that the war-like wave of patriotism from the British public demanded home-produced beef, and prices steadily rose right through to the end of September.

With the opening of hospitality and Eat Out to Help Out the brakes were applied, and a small price dip was evident towards the end of 2020. With the country once more in lockdown, the start of 2021 has seen a steady increase.

We have learned a lot about our industry in the last 12 months. The beef-eating British consumer has shown loyalty when it was needed most, and we must do everything within our power to ensure the British public stays on board.

Once the hospitality industry is open for business in the second half of this year, we must use all means possible to ensure that imported beef is not allowed to suppress the price of UK/GB produced beef. Having created a unique selling point with the consumer, we need to reinforce the benefits, to make certain they remain committed to buying home-produced high-welfare beef.

The pandemic has seen some unexpected side-effects for our industry in the last 12 months, and it maybe that change is on the cards in areas that would not have seen change otherwise.

Veganuary was a complete non-event this year, even social media was much quieter than usual. January saw record beef sales at a time when they are usually expected to fall – could this be the end of Veganuary?

At the beginning of the pandemic when mince supply was scarce, cheaper imported Polish mince was rejected by the consumer at retail level. The adequacy of the supply chain was certainly called into question, and home-produce was brought to the forefront.

Asda, one of the retailers who used imported mince, have since committed to source all their beef from the UK in future.

In spite of constant advice from processors that the whole carcase is impossible to balance, it would seem it has been achieved pretty well in the last 12 months. There has been very little chat about difficulties in this area, and it would seem that when imported product is removed from the equation, we manage pretty well!

With hospitality closed, and the range of eating opportunities limited, retail has gained a larger proportion of beef sales than they have ever had. Understandably, they will do everything in their power to maintain as much of that share as possible, keeping consumers coming through the door and filling their trolley with other products.

The outlook for beef in 2021 is very good, and there is reason to suspect that prices will increase by another 8 to 12% in the coming weeks.

Although lockdown appears to be coming to an end, there will still be many people who take a cautious approach, and with barbecue season moving in, many will restart their social life in their own back garden allowing the reconnection of friends and family after a seriously challenging year.

However, the industry still faces the same challenges that were evident before the pandemic; the environmental impact of beef production being the biggest of these.

In November, Glasgow hosts COP26, which will be a great opportunity to showcase UK/GB beef production, highlighting our competitive edge, and high carbon efficiency with emissions 52% lower than the global average.

We need to grab this opportunity with both hands, and ensure a UK-wide policy for beef production, avoiding the embarrassment and confusion of having several different schemes for environmental beef production within the UK. We need a collective and united approach to keep the whole of the UK at the forefront of globally efficient beef production.

Lastly, for those within Government and the anti-beef enthusiasts, here are some numbers to digest.

In normal times, our annual beef imports total approximately 400,000 tonnes. To achieve this, a suckler herd of approximately 1.4m cows are required. So, whilst some within Government advisory circles may consider the easiest solution to reduce emissions is to reduce cow numbers, please remember the cow herd needed to meet our import requirements is larger than the total amount of suckler cows in England, Scotland and Wales collectively.

We must not export our environmental responsibilities. The solution lies with increasing home-grown beef production and decreasing our reliance on environmentally-catastrophic imports.