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Case Study: The Beef Supply Chain

Dr. Stephanie Brooks from Queen’s University, Belfast, mapped the beef supply in the United Kingdom in order to identify the challenges and opportunities for the sector. We will describe this supply chain as an example of the complexity of our food supply chain.

The UK beef supply chain represents a complex food supply chain involving a series of fragmented networks and movements for the production, slaughtering, processing and transport of animals and beef products to the final consumer, via either a butcher, retailer or food service outlet (e.g. fast-food chains, restaurants and wholesale outlets).

The Beef Supply Chain

  • The farming/production stage of the chain involves a set of intricate production and trading steps, with beef coming from both suckler (beef) bred and dairy bred cattle. These cattle move through a series of growing and ‘finishing’ (an intensive feeding period in the last few weeks) stages prior to slaughter, occurring on one or several farms.

  • Cattle are sold by farmers to processors for slaughter and processing. This can occur via auction markets or directly to processors, sometimes involving third party agents.

  • Animals are slaughtered and then processed into a variety of products, either all in one facility or a number of facilities.

  • Processors will supply domestic customers with food products through the retail market and the wholesale/food service market which ultimately makes its way to consumers.

  • Processors will also serve the international market, and will sell their beef and beef products to importers. Subsequently, these importers subdivide the beef products for distribution to food retailers and food service establishments in their region.

  • Globalisation and international market liberalisation has encouraged trade to move within, but also outside of Europe. However, globalisation and exporting complicates and extends supply chains requiring them to be managed with great care to ensure supply meets demand both at home (domestic) and internationally.

  • It is important to note that external markets (importing and exporting) play a vital role in sufficiency and flexibility of the UK beef supply chain. With beef production susceptible to seasonal changes, poor weather, animal disease outbreaks, crop failures and therefore animal feed shortages, the importance of external markets should not be underestimated (The International Meat Trade Association, 2013).

  • The UK beef supply chain is estimated to be 75% self-sufficient (National Beef Association, 2020), meaning that 75% of the time, the UK beef production is able to meet the needs of domestic demand.

  • Therefore, imports of live beef cattle and of beef products play a vital role in the functioning of the UK beef supply chain to ensure supply meets demand when domestic supply does not match the demand in the marketplace (i.e. imports provide the remaining 25% of domestic demand).

  • It is important to understand that if the UK was to be 100% self-sufficient in beef production, the industry leaves themselves vulnerable to the events listed above. For example, if an animal disease outbreak occurred in cattle in the UK our domestic supplies would become unavailable and our supply of the beef products affected would cease. Conversely, if we include imports into our domestic supply of beef products we become more resilient to such shocks.

A map of the beef chain in the UK involving many actors from source to consumer The Beef Chain in the UK (Brooks et al., 2017) (Click to expand)

Please note you can find a higher quality PDF of the beef chain in the ‘Downloads’ section below.

What we would like you to do

Please do your own internet search to understand how much food is imported into your region and share your thoughts in the comments section below:

  • Does your country rely on imports?
  • What the main food groups imported to your region?
  • Did you realise that imports and exports play an important role in ensuring food supply meets demand?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Food Supply Chains in a Time of Crisis

EIT Food