It is now nine years since Irish beef was relaunched with considerable expectations in the USA following the ending of the BSE ban.

The feeling was that in the latter years of the Obama presidency and a trade negotiation under way with Europe that the environment was right for expansion of transatlantic trade.

Given the particularly close Irish-American connection through the diaspora and success of Irish dairy exports to the US, it seemed that Irish beef would be pushing an open door entering the US market.

Dairy exports to US

Fast forward a decade and it is clear that it simply hasn’t happened, nor does it look likely in the foreseeable future.

In the meantime, Irish dairy exports to the US have gone from strength to strength.

Looking at the Bord Bia export data for 2023, the volume of Irish dairy sold in the US was 78,827t, a 37% increase over the previous three years when 57,397t was exported in 2020.

While there has been opportunist trade such as being in a position to fill the gap created by US infant formula production problems, a big part of the success has been systematic building of the market.

The US is one of the best examples of the success achieved by the Kerrygold brand, to the extent that it is now the number two butter brand across the States.

Irish butter exports to the US have grown from 30,000t in 2020 to just under 39,000t in 2023, a 30% increase.

In value terms, Irish dairy exports to the US have almost doubled in this three-year period, rising from €358.7m in 2020 to €684m in 2023.

Beef exports to the US

It has been the complete opposite with beef exports. In the first five years after re-entering, there was a slow build-up of trade reaching 9,593t in 2020.

However, instead of building on that, it has been downhill since then, with volumes dropping to just under 7,000t in 2021 and collapsing to 2,277t in 2022 and just 1,387t in 2023.

Why has it gone so wrong?

So at the same time as Irish dairy exports to the US are surging, Irish beef exports have collapsed from what was, at best, a modest volume.

It appears at the outset that US beef importers weren’t buying what Irish exporters were selling.

The launch events back in 2015 focused on high-end catering and steak meat, with the thinking that the affluent New York and Boston markets, where so many people have an Irish connection, would prove lucrative for Irish exports.

This never happened because, despite the US consistently importing over one million tonnes of beef each year, it has an abundance of steak meat.

In fact, the US is unique globally in that it exports as much beef as it imports because it consumes more lower-value forequarter cuts either as low cook or burgers than they produce.

Meanwhile, it has a surplus of high-value hindquarter cuts, which it exports and is established with these in the top-end Asian and Middle East markets.

Type of market

Not only was Ireland chasing the wrong market initially, it also didn’t have approval to supply manufacturing beef at the outset and by the time this was resolved and volumes building to almost 10,000t in 2020, further competition was arriving by way of Brazil.

The latter had punitive import restrictions lifted in 2021 and that year exported 138,000t of beef to the US, according to ABIEC data.

Similar volumes have been supplied since then and as well as the extra competition, it also has the effect of using up the entire tariff-free import quota which Ireland and other countries without a specific trade agreement with the US use.

This 65,000t quota was filled by the end of February this year, which means that subsequent exports will be liable for a 25% tariff.

For Irish beef struggling to get a foothold in the market, this is the final straw as, unlike Brazil, Irish beef is unable to carry an additional 25% cost.

With a US-EU trade deal unlikely to happen for several years, if at all, Irish beef will continue to struggle in the US market.

Irish dairy has become well established and the Kerrygold brand strength gives an extra boost.

With the PGI for Irish Grass-Fed Beef just established, the process of building a beef brand is just beginning. The US is unlikely to become a major market for Irish beef any time soon.