Beef imports have risen sharply since the summer as restrictions imposed during the first UK Covid-19 lockdown were relaxed.

Figures released by the AHDB show imports reached 26,200t in September – up 5% on the August total and 12% higher than the same month in 2019.

Almost the whole rise of 2,900t was due to more beef coming in from Ireland, which was up by 2,400t, according to AHDB analyst Hannah Clarke.

However, shipments from Brazil were also 800t higher and imports from the Netherlands rose by 200t.

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Despite the growth in September, total imports between January and September were down 7% on the year at 227,400t. This was due to the effects of the first coronavirus lockdown, which saw all months up to August record beef imports below 2019 levels.

The late summer period saw food service markets regain some strength, although EU cattle remained competitively priced, Ms Clarke said.

UK exports

In contrast to the import situation, UK exports stayed flat in September compared with August at 13,700t and were down by 5,500t year on year.

This was primarily due to falls in shipments to the Netherlands, down 2,300t, and exports to Ireland, which fell by 1,100t against the September 2019 figure.

The September figures bring exports for the year to date to 133,600t, down 6% on the same period in 2019. However, the fall is set against a backdrop of higher exports last year due to a period of low farmgate prices, Ms Clarke pointed out.

Year-to-date exports were valued at £382m, down 11%, with average unit prices 5% lower than in 2019.

The majority of the annual decline in exports was due to less product being sent to the Netherlands, with lower volumes also sent to France, Italy, Spain and others.

Exports into the EU as a whole between Jan-Sep were down 13% year-on-year, while shipments to non-EU destinations were up by 14%.

Shipments to Canada were up by 141% and  those to Japan were even higher at 179%, with other countries such as Ghana and the US also taking more British product.

Global production

Meanwhile, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has forecast global beef production in 2021 could rise by 2% to 61.5m tonnes.

The growth in production in 2021 is expected to come as global economies strengthen, and supply chains recover from disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Ms Clarke suggested.

The USDA also projected that the recovery could drive up global beef exports by 3%.

It is expected that Asian demand will support shipments from the US and Brazil during the year. Chinese beef imports are forecast to rise by another 4% in 2021, having increased by a forecast 21% year on year in 2020.

However, Chinese pork production could rebound in 2021, as producers continue to recover from African swine fever, which may ease demand.