Blog: The work behind the scenes in accessing the US lamb market

Saturday, 8 October 2022

AHDB’s Market Access Manager Ouafa Doxon looks at the recent news that the US market for British lamb is opening up. 

Today’s announcement that the first commercial shipment of British lamb is heading across the pond to our friends in the US, is fantastic news – particularly for our sheep producers and exporters who have another valuable market in which to sell their products.

The US has been a relatively untapped market in terms of food exports, with the UK previously only able to ship pork and dairy products, right up until 2020 when we gained market access for UK beef. Then, earlier this year, the US government amended the ‘small ruminant’ rule which was introduced more than two decades ago banning imports of lamb – opening a market for our sheep sector which AHDB estimates to be worth £37 million during the first five years of trade.

Reopening this valuable market, where per capita meat consumption is three times the global average, was the result of ongoing negotiations and hard work by all involved – including AHDB, UK government and wider industry. Accessing a new market is never an easy process. It starts with the UK demonstrating equivalence with the US level of public health protection, as this is a prerequisite for exporting meat.

The UK had to show that its veterinary meat inspection system to produce and market meat met the same standards as the US inspection system. Fortunately, the UK was in an advantageous position in exporting lamb to the US, as we already gained regulatory equivalence. Some countries wishing to gain new access face a lengthy application process.

However, despite already having equivalence, there were still some technical issues that acted as barriers to be resolved. To overcome these challenges, AHDB was responsible for providing support and expertise to the UK government to facilitate technical discussions to address outstanding meat inspection issues with the US.

The need for technical discussions is an integral part of the market access process. Technical discussions are crucial as they define the terms and conditions under which export can take place. Gaining access to a market with challenging export requirements does not facilitate trade.

While Defra leads on trade negotiations, we in AHDB add value by advising and feeding into the negotiations process through our expertise and unique relationship with our levy payers. Some of the technical challenges related to the procedure of inspecting the head, liver and gall bladder of sheep and AHDB played a key role in facilitating these discussions.

The collaborative approach led to a resolution and the official acceptance to UK individual sanitary measures (ISM) with the aid of visual inspections. This was welcome news and the result of an intensive 15-month collaboration between AHDB and UKECP (UK Export Certification Partnership), feeding back to the UK government. This work was hugely important for our levy payers, as this official recognition removed the need for UK exporters to further inspection procedures that are specific to US process.

The removal of the ban to export lamb expeditated our ambition to access the market. Defra set up a working group where I worked closely with UKECP and UK government to prepare the industry in embracing the next steps towards readiness to export lamb to the US.  The work involved developing and agreeing on the approval process, documentation such as export health certificate and food safety procedure, and site applications. Taking into consideration resource and other criteria, Defra adopted a stage approach and abattoirs will come on stream into 2023 as they go through the rigorous inspection and approval process.

As part of this program of work in March of this year, AHDB organised a US lamb training session delivered by two ex-Food Safety and Inspection Service officials. The focus was on US export requirements and the listing process.

The collaborative approach between AHDB, industry, and UK officials paid off today, when the UK saw its first lamb shipped to the US. Building on this success, work behind the scenes continues in expanding the list of UK meat establishments authorised to export to the US, to ensure more of our levy payers have access to this important and potentially lucrative market.