Members' Research Service By / October 4, 2022

European Union beef sector: Main features, challenges and prospects

The EU cattle sector is composed of the beef and dairy sectors. The former refers to the production and processing of beef and veal (depending of the animal’s age at slaughter, more or less than one year old, respectively), while the latter covers the production and processing of cow milk.

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Written by Claudia Vinci.

In 2020, there were over 76 million cattle in the European Union (EU) and beef production reached 6.8 million tonnes – output that makes the EU the world’s third largest producer, after the United States and Brazil. The sector is diverse in terms of herd size, farm structure and geographical distribution of farms between EU regions.

Beef is an important element of most European diets, and it is the third most widely consumed meat in the world. EU beef, together with other EU food products, is known for its quality, and widely exported to third countries. To facilitate trade, the EU negotiates bilateral free trade agreements with those countries.

While offering a wide range of opportunities, the opening of global markets can also have a negative impact on the EU beef industry: beef produced outside the EU is more competitive, which threatens to weaken EU internal production.

In recent years, threats other than the opening of new markets have been putting pressure on EU beef producers. These include the declining consumption of red meat, citizens’ concerns about environmental impact, climate change and animal welfare, and low farm incomes.

The EU’s common agricultural policy offers a wide range of instruments to support farmers and address market changes. These instruments include export refunds, public intervention, and private storage aid. Farmers should also now be able to exert greater leverage over big retailers with the protection provided by the 2019 Unfair Trading Practices Directive.

Read the complete briefing on ‘European Union beef sector: Main features, challenges and prospects‘ in the Think Tank pages of the European Parliament.

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