MEAT producers, dealers and butchers from North Yorkshire visited one of the world's largest agricultural exhibitions as part of a one-year project to boost knowledge and understanding of developing overseas markets.

The two-day trip on Wednesday and Thursday of last week, funded by the county council, Defra and Yorkshire Forward, tied in with the scheme's aims of promoting Yorkshire beef and lamb abroad and identifying opportunities for the region's livestock producers.

The visit to Salon International de l'Agriculture, in Paris, which attracted an estimated 700,000 visitors over nine days, was hosted by the English Beef and Lamb Executive, which had a stand at the show.

Project leader, Len Chamberlain, has already led a fact-finding mission to Germany as part of the programme.

"Before BSE, British beef exports of France were worth £500m a year," he said. "Britain exported 30pc of its total production of lamb and, of that, 70pc would go to France. BSE and then foot-and-mouth severely damaged the export market and this project is about raising awareness and providing opportunities for Yorkshire producers, livestock centres and processing businesses."

The annual SIA exhibition, which began in the 1960s and features exhibits ranging from livestock to forestry and horticulture, last year attracted visitors from 96 countries. It also incorporates a huge food fair with produce from every region of France and dozens of international stands. SIA is funded by a statutory levy paid by French farmers and government cash.

Henry Lewis, export manager for the Meat and Livestock Commission, who helped man the Eblex stand, said: "The show is a national institution in France. Government ministers spend a lot of time and treat the industry with more respect than in the UK. Regional French government also supports the event strongly by backing their regional exhibitors.

"It is important to be seen at the show, to be recognised and to be part of what is going on. UK agriculture has had its back against the wall for all sorts of issues and that is a major reason to be part and parcel of what is going on here."

Promotion of British meat and breeding animals was at the heart of what the industry wanted to achieve as hopes were raised that export channels to France would open up again. "The message is that good meat starts with good animals," said Mr Lewis.

The French sheep industry had been in decline for some years and farmers tended to stick to pure breeds. Strong marketing opportunities existed for exporting breeding animals from Britain and UK breeds, including Wensleydale, Poll Dorset and Hampshire, were represented at the show.

"The people making great strides in France are the British who have come over here to live and to farm," said Mr Lewis. "They are importing good quality sheep and are willing to buy other breeds and combine them to breed in growth size, hardiness and meat."

French sheep breeds imported to the UK sometimes out-performed those which remained in their native country. "We now have more Charollais sheep in Britain than they do in France and a lot of people say ours are better," said Mr Lewis. "Much of that is down to dedicated selection."

British cattle breeds were also represented, including Highland, and a large area was dedicated to a 500,000-Euro carcase and butchering exhibition mounted by the Centre d'Information des Viandes, the French equivalent of the MLC.

Branding was vital in the campaign to sell UK meat abroad and the St George image had been chosen by Eblex and the MLC for English products. The Eblex stand was based around a mock St George pub.

Peter Hardwick, of Eblex, said: "St George is a sub-brand of what we are trying to develop for the French market. Tests have shown it is quite a positive image and, after the problems of BSE and foot-and-mouth, 'Angleterre' is a little more difficult to sell. We want to create a brand that connects the produce to England but isn't too obvious and we are using a bit of romantic branding."

The meat display included Mille Plaisirs lamb retail packs launched at Intermarche supermarkets and Agneau St George retail packs with new quality standard marks.

French farming co-operatives were well represented, including one from the south, where produce ranged from livestock to ducks, walnuts and fruit. Members, who formed the organisation in the 1960s, were part owners of the local abattoir and were held up as a shining example of co-operation between producers.

* North Yorkshire delegates were Barbara Bradley, of Brim-ham Hall Farm, Pateley Bridge, a dairy farmer who plans to go into the beef business this year; Stephen Knox, who runs a cutting plant and wholesale beef business from Mill Close Farm, Patrick Brompton, Bedale; Jeremy Eaton, of Craven Cattle Marts, Skipton; Andrew Atkinson, of Felliscliffe, Harrogate, a cattle and sheep dealer; Brian Glaves, of Brompton, Scarborough, who operates a medium-sized abattoir, retail and wholesale business; Simon Dickinson, of Machin's Yorkshire Lamb, based at Busby Stoop, Thirsk; and Robert Phillip, of Hellifield, who has a small direct selling Highland beef operation and a dairy herd.