You may have seen the advertisements by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals arguing that long lorry journeys for lambs shipped to Continental Europe are cruel and unnecessary. They were triggered by a leap in British exports of live sheep and lambs to France to meet rising French consumption - two linked trends that may be reaching their peak this year.
France's 100,000 sheep farmers used to provide up to 80 per cent of the lamb and mutton consumed in the country every year, while the rest was imported. But in the past few years, the equation has shifted dramatically as French production has dropped. France now imports up to 60 per cent of its lamb needs.
Britain, Europe's largest lamb producer, has filled the breach - although French farmers might argue that Britain caused it. British and Irish producers have been targeting their export marketing efforts at France in recent years, successfully increasing UK exports of both carcass meat and live sheep and lambs.
British exports of mutton and lamb to France last year were 72,400 tonnes, worth pounds 216m, up from 53,400 tonnes in 1991, according to UK government figures (EU figures put French imports much higher). Live sheep exports from Britain could exceed two million this year, after 1.4 million last year, with 80 per cent going to France.
The UK export push has resulted in lower British lamb prices to French abattoirs and on France's supermarket shelves. French consumers, who eat more lamb per person than anyone in Europe except the British, have responded enthusiastically to falling prices. Per person consumption has shot up to about six kilograms per year, from 4.5 kilograms in 1986.
The twist is that the French may not realise that they are buying British lamb from their supermarket or boucherie.
Under EU law, if a French abattoir buys imported live lambs and slaughters them domestically, the lamb receives a French veterinary stamp and can be labelled as a French product. The RSPCA complained last week that the practice was involved in the controversy over live British sheep exports to France.
French-labelled lamb commands a premium, partly because of its freshness, so that exporting British live lamb is profitable despite the high export costs.
The Meat and Livestock Commission, a UK marketing body, believes British producers can offer more competitive prices than the French for other reasons as well.
David Croston, the MLC's sheep strategy manager, said: 'Despite the fact that their consumption of lamb is increasing, they can't produce it very efficiently.'
Britain's abundant rainfall provides grasslands year-round for grazing sheep, keeping production costs low. In France, farmers rely on intensive cereal feeding, which is more expensive. The number of sheep farmers in Britain and France is similar, but French flocks are about half the size of British flocks.
In the past few years, thousands of French farmers have abandoned sheep production because they cannot cover costs or compete with cheaper imported produce - from New Zealand as well as Britain and Ireland. French mutton and lamb production has declined to about 125,000 tonnes a year, from 150,000 tonnes in 1990.
The uproar from French farmers has died down since 1990, when producers barricaded French roads to stop British lorries bringing in sheep carcasses, and even set fire to carcasses coming from Eastern Europe.
But Sean Rickard, chief economist for Britain's National Farmers' Union, said French farmers were still unhappy about being driven out of their own market and protests might flare up again.
Because of Common Agricultural Policy rules, which limit the number of sheep each country's farmers can receive subsidies for, it is undesirable and expensive for French farmers to increase production.
Many UK observers believe that France can do nothing to reverse the situation, because of the sheer volume of imports and the EU single market, which allows unfettered trade. But experts say UK exports to France could peak this year.
The changes resulting from freer trade have quietly affected UK meat wholesalers and consumers as well. With 36 per cent of British sheep meat shipped abroad, British wholesalers have seen a 20 per cent rise in producer prices for lamb in each of the last two years.
Retailers have passed the increase on to consumers and consumption has dropped to six kilograms of lamb per head per year, from more than seven kilograms two years ago. Britons are about to be overtaken by the French in lamb consumption for the first time.
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