OPINION: News Analysis - Bringing balance back into the European diet. As the beef wars with France and Germany rattle on, UK farmers plan a PR offensive to allay the fears of the rest of the European Community

As Germany is again making threatening noises about not lifting the ban on UK beef, France and Britain are slugging it out over whose cattle are eating what. While the French refuse to eat British beef, the UK is weighing up its options: legal proceedings, a potential tit-for-tat trade war, or an unofficial boycott.

As Germany is again making threatening noises about not lifting the

ban on UK beef, France and Britain are slugging it out over whose cattle

are eating what. While the French refuse to eat British beef, the UK is

weighing up its options: legal proceedings, a potential tit-for-tat

trade war, or an unofficial boycott.



The National Farmers Union (NFU), the Daily Mail and the Sun have called

for a boycott on French foods. Initially, this populist campaign saw a

few schools in Britain’s farming strongholds follow the lead of Kent

County Council and take French meat off menus, but for the most part,

the campaign fell on deaf ears.



However, last week’s news pictures of gendarmes helping French farmers

block the path of British food lorries, upped the stakes. The big

supermarkets began taking French produce from their shelves and Tony

Blair was forced to make a public statement about the legal grounds for

his rejection of a ban on French meat.



While the NFU is free to make political comment on the recent

deterioration of Franco-British relations, others who receive funds from

or are empowered by Government are more circumspect. ’Our official view

is that a trade war is not helpful to anyone, because in the long term

it will cause damage in terms of both trade and relationships,’ says Ray

Barrowdale, communications officer for the Meat and Livestock Commission

(MLC). He adds that this stance is especially relevant with France being

the UK’s number one European export market for lamb and the current

strong pound.



However, assuming that matters stay as they are regarding British beef,

MLC’s export marketing strategy will be low key, using PR rather than

advertising. The commission estimates that if UK beef was to return to

Europe in a big way, it would need to spend pounds 3 million on a

sustained PR campaign.



To date, the MLC has run small scale campaigns targeting sales at the

high end of the market - the restaurant trade. It has been talking to

potential importers and opinion formers overseas, about improvements in

farming that ensure the UK beef products now meet EU safety

standards.



With public figures like the Prince of Wales throwing his weight behing

the campaign, and with the Government recognising the need for a renewed

push, the financial backing for a pounds 3 million campaign may well be

forthcoming.



And if it gets the green light, the MLC is likely to turn to its

retained agency Bell Pottinger and its affiliates in Europe to take on

the work.



Talk of trade wars is also a cause for concern for other industries

besides meat. ’We’re not suffering any adverse reactions yet,’ says Mike

Lloyd, marketing director of the Scottish Salmon Board. ’But clearly if

things go further, it would be disastrous for everybody.’



Ironically, Scottish Salmon was the first foreign product to get the

French Ministry of Agriculture’s quality mark- Label Rouge - in

1992.



This makes for a very potent branding position in overseas markets.

’It’s very important that our product is Scottish rather than British,’

says Lloyd. Unsurprisingly, he is fiercely against any sort of action

that leads to the French authorities banning further UK goods and is an

advocate of ’let the consumer decide’. But he also thinks the current

situation is ideal for embracing agriculture minister Nick Brown’s

initiative to clearly label all food.



’We should use this opportunity to put pressure on retailers to have

complete openness in food labelling,’ says Lloyd. ’Consumers should know

the origin of the ingredients in the products they buy.’



However, other food promotion bodies are less concerned by squabbles

with France. ’We are reasonably removed from the British meat industry

and the UK doesn’t export a lot of potatoes to France,’ says Cliona

Cassidy, export marketing executive for the British Potato Council. This

view is endorsed by other fruit and vegetable organisations, which

recognise that while British lorries need a route through French ports,

the French themselves tend to stock supermarkets with home-grown

produce.



But is the Union Jack still a winning brand when selling UK goods

abroad?



’It depends whether saying something is British adds value,’ says

Patrick Davis, CEO of export marketing consultancy Food From Britain. He

highlights that in the US and Japan collecting products under a British

umbrella seems to appeal, while in Europe certain items such as Welsh

lamb and Scottish whisky benefit from their individual country

label.



Despite the ruling by scientists a few days ago in Brussells that UK

beef is indeed safe, Britain’s food and drink industries must wait to

see whether the outcome helps their case in France and Germany.





UK FOOD AND DRINK EXPORTS TO THE EUROPEAN COMMUNITY

pounds Million                    1997           1998

Meat                               789            639

Dairy                              474            523

Fish                               578            664

Cereals                          1,008          1,024

Fruit and vegetables               347            318

Sugar                              194            192

Tea, coffee and cocoa              372            372

Other groceries                    331            340

Oil, seeds and nuts                 50             50

Fats and oils                      193            164

Animal feed                        331            302

Total Food                       4,667          4,589

Drinks                           1,280          1,289

Total Food and Drink             5,947          5,878

Figures from Food From Britain.



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