Canada buys more beef from Europe

Imports spiked in the first seven months of the year after COVID infections in packing plants reduced production

Canada’s beef imports from Europe and the United Kingdom increased by $56 million in the first seven months of 2020, compared to the same period in 2019.

Imports spiked because Canadian beef production dropped this spring due to plant closures and fewer shifts at packing plants in Alberta, said Fawn Jackson, director of government and international relations with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

The Cargill plant in High River, Alta., closed for a couple of weeks in April, after dozens of workers tested positive for COVID-19. The plant processes about 40 percent of the beef produced in Canada. The JBS plant in Brooks, Alta., also reduced production to control the spread of the coronavirus. It cut back to one shift per day.

To make up the shortfall, Canada imported more beef than normal this year. Europe grabbed a sizable share of imports because shipments from Australia dropped.

In the first five months of 2020, Australian beef volumes to Canada were down 22 percent, Jackson said.

“So, meat is coming from somewhere else,” she said from Ottawa.

The somewhere else is the European Union and the U.K.

From January to July, the EU exported $74 million worth of beef to Canada. That’s a huge amount of beef considering that annual EU shipments to Canada, for 2017 and 2018, were around $15 million.

Canada did sell $17 million in beef to the U.K. and the EU in the first seven months of the year — up 37 percent from the same period in 2019.

That’s encouraging because the EU is a desirable market, Jackson said.

“It’s a really high value market… (beef) tends to be $14-$15 (per kilogram). Our next highest value market, Hong Kong, is around the $9 mark…. The U.S., around $7.”

In comparison, Europe mostly ships ground beef to Canada, at a price of around $5 per kg.

Canada could be selling more beef to Europe because the EU imports about $2.7 to $3 billion worth of beef annually (not including the U.K.).

Most of the beef comes from South America.

But Europe only accepts beef produced without supplemental growth hormones. A small percentage of Canada’s beef herd is raised without hormones, but the CCA lacks data on hormone-free production.

“In the StatsCan farm management survey, they ask about beef operations that have used products to maintain or improve the health… of beef cattle,” Jackson said.

“It doesn’t provide enough information to calculate or estimate the number of head produced without hormones.”

The survey, which is available on the StatsCan website, does have a question about the use of certain products in beef production, including ionophores, ear implants, ractopamine and Zilpaterol. Those products are growth promotants that increase an animal’s rate of gain.

It may be difficult to calculate the number of head raised with growth hormones but beef sales to Europe have been increasing. So, Canadian ranchers are probably raising more cattle without growth promotants, Jackson said.

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