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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 May 2006, 00:20 GMT 01:20 UK
Back in the beef market
Cow
The EU ban has cast a shadow over UK farmers
The European market is once again open to British beef cattle farmers. From Wednesday, the export ban, brought in by the European Commission in 1996 to prevent the spread of mad cow disease, is being lifted in full.

"It's like getting out of jail" says Frank Momber, who has run Hatchmoor Farm near Liss in Hampshire since 1969.

"We've been in prison for the last 10 years - the end of the ban marks a new era in livestock farming."

Mr Momber is typical of many of the UK farmers affected by the crisis.

BSE has never affected Hatchmoor Farm, which Mr Momber operates with his son Peter, but it has felt the consequences of a ban that has cast its shadow over the industry.

Our beef is the best in the world - there's no question about that
Frank Momber
Hatchmoor has managed to maintain the level of its herd of 160 suckler beef cattle.

Mr Momber, however, estimates his farm's annual income has fallen by about 25%.

"You just struggle on the best you can," he says.

"We used to have a stockman and tractor driver here. There were four families living off the herd in 1996 and now there are two.

"And of course, you also have to make changes to your own lifestyle."

New areas

Hatchmoor supplies some 52,000 kg of beef each year to UK wholesalers.

With a restricted market and competition pressures on the high street, the wholesale price of beef has fallen, with the average price per kilo now under 2, compared to 2.46 in 1996.

The export ban, too, has seen the market for mature beef disappear altogether, with the payments from a government compensation scheme only worth about 20% of 1996 prices.

We are nearer to Europe and the quality and provenance is second to none
Frank Momber

The European Commission did ease its original ban in 1999 to allow exports of boneless British beef products from animals under 30 months to recommence.

But to date it has accounted for only a tiny market - mainly to Italy - meaning the majority of Hatchmoor's income has continued to be confined to UK sales.

Opportunities to diversify have also been thin on the ground.

With Hatchmoor lying on protected land, Mr Momber has not been able to consider building holiday cottages like some other farmers affected by the ban have opted to do.

With the ban gone, Mr Momber is optimistic British beef farmers can regain a "proper share" of the market.

UK business has been replaced mainly by imports from South America but there is still a shortage of beef in Europe.

"At last we are being let back in and we can compete," Mr Momber says.

'Squeaky clean'

According to the UK's National Beef Association demand from the continent is expected to drive up wholesales prices of British beef over the summer to bring them in line with the higher-prices charged by other European producers.

Changing consumer perceptions of British beef will, Mr Momber admits, be among the greatest challenges.

Beef
The industry is now governed by stringent hygiene rules

He believes European consumers will recognise the industry is now governed by stringent hygiene regulations.

"Our beef is the best in the world - there's no question about that," he says.

"There are various things working for us.

"Our beef is grass feed - it's squeaky clean and very flavoursome.

"We are nearer to Europe and the quality and provenance is second to none."

Mr Momber says British producers are in a position to prosper.

"It may take one or two years but I am fully confident," he says.


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