Judging by the media coverage of international food fair SIAL in Paris you may have been forgiven for thinking that the ban on British beef in France had been lifted. On closer inspection, the reality was that the meat was only on display at the show. Not quite the good news beef exporters had been hoping for but it is a step in the right direction.
'We had special dispensation from the French ministry which stated that we could import the beef to France but only for export purposes,' says Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) international manager Peter Hardwick.
'After we're finished we must either re-export it or give it to the British embassy and they can eat the beef or destroy it.
'We brought with us all the documentation. French customs went to the stand to check that everything was in order and I'm pleased to say it was.'
The MLC is charged with promoting the efficiency of the British livestock industry. It is a public organisation funded by farmers and abattoir owners and has an annual income of about pounds 30m. Every time an animal is slaughtered in a UK abattoir there is a fixed levy on its head, for example pounds 4.30 per head of cattle. Paying the levy is obligatory and the MLC reports to the Ministry of Agriculture Food and Fisheries.
'Our biggest priority at SIAL is to provide an environment where British meat exporters can keep up communication with continental meat importers,' says MLC marketing director Richard Lowe.
Helping the MLC is Coleman Moore, which designed the 320 sq m stand. The double-decker look made it stand out in the meat section of the exhibition.
'We divided the stand into two tiers,' says Coleman Moore new business manager Ian Scott. 'The first tier is introduction, presentations and description of the product. On the second tier things are more low key with areas for discussions, hospitality and business.'
The stand included a demonstration area with live cooking, and a huge freezer built in the middle to store the products. The first tier presented the meats as if they were in a supermarket.
Scott adds: 'We wanted to illustrate the whole of the process from farm to fork. It is very complex and it is not a conventional marketing exercise.'
This has a lot to do with the MLC being a public and accountable body, which can pose problems for the organisation.
'After the show there will be an inquest from the meat exporters as to whether the stand was right and if it worked for them,' says Lowe. 'You can never please everyone.'
Beef exporters are not happy with the state of the industry. The EU lifted the beef ban on August 1 1999 but then put in place the database exports scheme.
'The scheme puts down all kinds of stipulations as to how beef should be exported,' adds Lowe. 'It has to be boneless, has to come from cows which are so many months old (30 is the limit) and cows have to be slaughtered and processed in an abattoir for exports only. This is a big shift for the British beef industry. A whole plant has to be devoted to exporting a product that hasn't got much of a market.'
'What we need is a change in UK status,' explains Hardwick. 'We need to move out of our defined risk status, which is category four. If we can go to category three then we would be on the same level as France, Germany, Spain, Netherlands and other EU countries.'
Beef was not the only product on the British Meat stand, however. Lamb and pork were also on display. Lamb is of particular importance at the show.
'Lamb has not been affected by the BSE crisis,' says Lowe. 'France is a very big and important market for lamb exporters. It takes about two-thirds of all Lamb exports and 20% of all the sheep produced in the UK.'
Despite this, the beef crisis means lamb in France is not sold as British lamb. French consumers won't buy meat with a British label so it is sold as EU lamb.
Whatever meat is exported, there is another problem for the industry - the strong pound and the weak euro.
'The pound exasperates the situation for every British exporter at SIAL,' adds Lowe. 'It's not so much its strength, but the euro's weakness. The effect works against the sheep trade as the French product is miles cheaper.'
Although this is the case the MLC remains upbeat about the message it sent out at SIAL.
'The key theme is to show the versatility of the product throughout the production chain,' says Hardwick. 'Our objective is to display our meat in all its guises. In addition to that, we have a lot of information about quality in general.
'We will judge the success of the show by the level of interest from the media and the consumer. Also, by the feedback we get from exporters. Most of them, if they don't book business here, will have developed opportunities and that is a measure of success.'
The show has put British beef back in the news but this is just a small part of a process, which could take a while yet. The MLC is confident the French will have lifted its beef ban by the time of the next SIAL in 2002.
'In two years, we expect to see beef having free access to all European markets and hope that the database export scheme is changed,' says Lowe.
'This is so it becomes more economic to sell different cuts of meat abroad.'
Hardwick adds: 'We will continue with our legal case against France and we have to insist that the Community shows real teeth to implement the law. It is simply not acceptable that they don't. We will continue pressing for the French ban to be lifted.'
Design: Coleman Moore
Venue: Centre des Exposition, Paris, France
TROUBLE IN FRANCE
'This show has taken place at a time when there has been some difficulty in France in the beef sector and that has attracted some additional interest,' says the MLC's Hardwick.
SIAL has focused attention on the French beef industry, which is experiencing problems similar to those the UK industry faced when the BSE crisis first started.
France, unlike the UK, does not have a ban on animal feed containing meat and bonemeal. And there has recently been a rise in the number of cases of BSE in France.
'For the past six months we haven't seen any adverse articles about British beef in the French press,' says Remi Fourrier, the MLC's French representative.
'Negative articles have been aimed more at the French industry. They now recognise the efficiency of the measures in the UK and they want to find out more. There is a better understanding.'
France's domestic problems have also resulted in consumer associations putting pressure on the EU and the French government.
'The French consumer lobby is much stronger than in the UK,' says Richard Lowe. 'It is anti-Europe and is against the French government for not sticking up for them.'
Despite its own industry problems, France continues to hold out against the EU's decision on British beef. While the ban in France continues, British exporters will continue to find it difficult to sell beef to countries outside the EU.