‘It’s been a long time out in the cold’: Australian farmers on a UK trade deal

Some breeders are eager to export more to Britain, but others have their hands full keeping up with domestic demand

Fourth-generation beef producers Josie and Blair Angus have spent a lifetime developing their own branded product and exporting it around the world.

The couple own four properties in Central West Queensland covering 162,000 hectares – an area slightly larger than greater London – and run a 35,000-strong herd of Angus and Belmont Red cattle. They are also in the process of building an export-accredited abattoir handling 50,000 head of cattle a year.

Josie Angus said that expanding their operations in the UK – a market they already export to – through a free trade deal would provide greater certainty for them and their customers.

“My husband was only 10 when Australia lost basically all of its access to the UK overnight when the UK joined the EU, and it has been a long time out in the cold for Australia,” she said.

“For the last 30 years we’ve been in a position where we have one week every quarter where we can quickly try to squeeze a container through the door before that window shuts again.

“When you’re trying to do a really high quality product, it is obviously really, really challenging.”

She said existing trade agreements between the UK and Australia operated on a “first in, first served” basis, which meant exporters were dealt hefty tariffs if they weren’t in the front of the line as ships docked – something that she said didn’t benefit either country because the costs were ultimately passed on to the customer.

The Angus family exports to more than 30 countries, with each having different regulations and restrictions to meet. Current standards for the UK are among the strictest in the world: Australian producers need a special accreditation before goods can be imported.

Josie Angus said their products appealed to a high-end market with a focus on premium cuts and specialised products, which come at a higher cost anyway.

“It’s from a herd that’s 25 cow generations in the making, which allows us to produce a really consistent product that reflects all of the flavours of Australia and the depth of flavour that we have from our beautiful pastures,” she said.

“Our favourite product to export to the UK is our dry aged loins – wrapped in muslin cloth and never touching plastic.

“The really fortunate part about being able to trade with a number of countries is that everybody likes different parts of the cow, and favours different pieces, so it actually allows us to create great value and utilisation of the entire carcass to minimise waste.”

With the finer detail of any potential trade deal yet to be finalised, not all Australian beef producers are certain the UK is a market that they will be turning to straight away.

Among them are the former chair of Meat and Livestock Australia, Don Heatley, who runs about 7,000 head of cattle across a number of properties in North Queensland before handing them over to a meat processing company to manage exports to countries including Japan, the US and Korea.

“There will be any number of criteria that may or may not prevent an Australian product ending up in that marketplace, but until we know that detail of what the accreditation criteria will be, it’s very hard to know,” he said.

“For example, in Australia we use hormone growth products –which are very, very safe – but they aren’t used across the entire beef industry.”

And even meeting the current demand for meat may also pose a challenge for many producers in the short term, Heatley said. Queensland has been suffering from “horrendous drought conditions over a very lengthy period, so the herd is some 4 million head lower than it would normally be – so the law of supply and demand kicks in.”

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