German trade less than 1% of UK exports: The value of British exports rose to pounds 406m from pounds 270m in 1992, writes Oliver Gillie

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ONLY 1,000 tons of British beef were exported to Germany last year - less than 1 per cent of British beef exports. Not because the Germans have gone off British beef but because they have never eaten very much of it.

The trade with Germany is almost exclusively in prime Scotch beef which is sold mainly in hotels and restaurants. This beef comes from herds in Scotland which are least likely to have been exposed to BSE because the young animals are suckled by their mothers and then fed on grass. This prime beef is prized for its quality throughout Europe and accounts for between one-third and a quarter of British exports.

Britain exported 161,000 tons of beef in 1993 worth pounds 406m, according to the Meat and Livestock Commission. Most went to EU countries, with France taking the largest portion, 71,000 tons, followed by Italy, 16,000 tons, and the Netherlands with 15,000 tons.

The value of British exports increased to pounds 406m last year from pounds 270m in 1992 following the devaluation of the pound and the almost simultaneous lifting of the 'monetary compensatory amount', a tax designed to give a level playing field in EU agricultural trade.

The big increase in exports occurred even though beef production in Britain in 1993 had reached a 20-year low because of the effects of the Common Agricultural Policy. Production in 1993 was 863,000 tons compared with 1.15 miilion tons in 1984 at its peak. Now production of beef is again increasing and is forecast by the Meat and Livestock Commission to rise 6 per cent this year. It is expected to increase further because British farmers are building up their herds.

The reduced production of beef in Europe in recent years has enabled much of the beef stockpile to be sold and it has now gone down from 1.1 miilion tons at the end of 1992 to 235,000 tons at the end of March this year.

British beef now uses many of the continental breeds such as Limousin, Simmental, and Charollais to improve growth, birthing and other qualities. This makes little, if any, difference to the taste or quality which is related primarily to the way the animal has been kept, its age and the way the meat is hung. The practice used to vary but carcasses are now always hung by the H-bone (pelvis) as this has been found to produce the best maturation and length of hanging is much more standardised.

British beef is mainly exported as primal cuts, such as rump or topside, which are cut in such a way that continentals may easily butcher the meat in their own way. This involves following the individual muscles and cutting them out whole providing a joint which cooks more consistently. Tissues such as the brain which might be primary sources for dissemination of BSE are removed before the carcass is cut up.

BSE was first discovered in England in 1985 and since then more than 100,000 cattle have been confirmed as having the disease. The cost of investigating BSE and buying in diseased stock must be about pounds 100m. Investigations pointed to the recycling of diseased animals in cattle food as the cause of the epidemic and a government ban on doing this was brought in July 1988. Of 101,631 cases reported to the Ministry of Agriculture, only 3,374 were born after the feed ban was introduced.

The birth of animals with BSE since the introduction of the feed ban can be explained by consumption of old feed which remained on farms, or by the disease being passed from mother to offspring. A similar disease in sheep, scrapie, is spread from mother to offspring although this may be due to one sheep eating the placenta of another.

Experiments being monitored by the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Addlestone, Surrey, have found no evidence that BSE is passed from the cow to its offspring. It is not yet possible to rule this out, but if it does occur it is at a very low rate.