Irish beef is back on the menu in the US for the first time since a ban was introduced over fears of BSE 16 years ago.
After a two-year campaign by government officials and agriculture chiefs, Ireland has become the first state in the European Union to achieve the lucrative status for grass-fed cattle – “green beef” as it is known.
Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Simon Coveney said the US is a much more exciting market than it was 16 years ago and is now the highest value in world for beef farmers.
Sales into the American market from Ireland are estimated to run from €50 million-€100 million (£39.1 million-£78.3 million) this year, with the potential for more, he said.
“This US market is a huge prize given the size of the market and the demand we know exists there for premium grass-fed beef,” Mr Coveney said.
“We now have first-mover advantage as a result of being the first EU member state to gain entry. There is also the large Irish-American community, which will be a key target of our promotional efforts for Irish beef now.”
As part of the drive to promote Irish beef, a dedicated website aimed at American consumers and buyers, highlighting the quality of the meat, is to be set up in coming weeks.
The agreement to reopen the market was reached following two years of talks with US officials and a successful inspection of Ireland’s beef production systems last July.
Beef from the EU has been banned in the US for more than 15 years over fears of quality following the BSE scare. The ban was only formally lifted in March last year.
Mr Coveney added: “This announcement by the US is a huge endorsement of Irish beef and our production and regulatory systems. It complements the other market access outlets we have secured in the last two years, all of which are a key element of our Food Harvest 2020 strategy to expand the overseas opportunity for Irish beef.
“It’s clear that diversifying our international beef markets as an exporting country is key to the long-term sustainability of our beef sector.”
Under the agreement with Washington, Irish authorities will be required to approve individual beef plants to export meat to the US.
President of the Irish Farmers’ Association Eddie Downey welcomed the development.
“This is a positive development and its significance will be judged by farmers securing improved beef prices from the marketplace in 2015,” he said.
The farming chief said the major increase in US beef prices, up by one euro (78p) per kilo in the last year and now at €4.70-€4.80 (£3.68-£3.76) per kilo, must present a real opportunity for Irish grass-based beef exports.
Meanwhile, beef industry leaders from Meat Industry Ireland, the group that represents processors, said the trade will be primarily in grass-fed steak cuts.
Senior executive Joe Ryan said: “While we are awaiting clarification on some aspects, it is important now to get an agreed certificate in place as soon as possible so that trade can commence.
“Individual Irish beef processing companies have been working on developing new customer contacts and potential outlets for some time.”
Mr Ryan added: “From a business perspective, we believe that the US market will ultimately be a high value/low volume niche market, principally for Irish grass-fed steak cuts. However, at present, due to lower than normal beef production in the US, there is opportunity to potentially export greater volumes, including manufacturing beef, in the course of 2015 and hopefully 2016, while US herd rebuilding is under way.”
Phil Hogan, former environment minister and current EU Agriculture Commissioner, also welcomed the development.
In a statement with EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis and Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, he said the ban on European exports had been a disproportionate and unjustified response to the BSE crisis of the 1990s.
“This reopening of the market is a welcome first step to abolish the disproportionate and unjustified US ban that followed the BSE crisis of the 1990s, and to re-establish normal trading conditions,” the commissioners said.