Russians lift ban on beef and government push exports
Russia was the last country to lift a ban on the import and sale of our beef, a ban introduced during the BSE scare.
It's been a long time coming but this week Shropshire MP and minister Owen Patterson was able to announce the ban was history and also reveal a £100m beef and lamb trade deal.
A lot has changed in Russia in the last 18 years and Shropshire beef farmer Dan Morris told me the country's newly minted middle-classes offer a lucrative market for a premium UK agricultural export like beef.
As well as the angus steaks Dan Morris produces the Russians are also keen on the so called "fifth quarter", the offal including liver and heart. It's stuff we're not so eager to eat in this country, so with the right marketing Russia could be a really useful new outlet for our farmers and meat processors.
So with our government out there getting bans lifted and pushing for more food and drink exports what else needs to be done?
Well to talk more about the export experience for Midlands firms I went to see William Chase. He's the man who created Tyrrells crisps and who has now focused his attention on his alcohol business. Where once he turned Herefordshire potatoes into snacks he now turns them into vodka.
Exporting vodka makes more sense than exporting crisps. Vodka is high value and high density, whereas with crisps you're really just moving expensive bags of air around the world. Nevertheless, they do export Tyrrells crisps and that taught Mr Chase some important lessons about exporting food. Apparently the French consider parsnips are only fit for pigs so didn't take kindly to them being included in a packet of Tyrrells vegetable crisps. It's that kind of local knowledge, he says, firms need and that means government help.
Almost all the UK companies producing agricultural products be they beef, cheese, vodka, biscuits, jam or crisps employ under 250 people. The numbers from the government seem to show that these smaller firms are pretty intimidated by the idea of exporting anything. Fewer than one in ten exports their products, a figure which is roughly half the UK average for other sectors.
In the case of beef, for example, do our small meat processors have the expertise to recruit knowledgeable Russian speakers who also know that country's meat trade? People who could help set up meetings with Russian supermarket buyers and help bring UK plants in line with Russian standards. The beef ban may be lifted but there's much that could be done to help our firms realise their potential.
For the most part the farmers I spoke to about this say it's really about helping producers with local knowledge in other parts of the world. Joining up the dots rather than throwing cash at the problem.
But that said Mr Chase has recently purchased a French vineyard and he said within days the French government was offering all sorts of help with exporting his wine. If he wants to promote his new wine in an English supermarket the French government will cover half the costs. That's a level of support our producers would certainly welcome.