THE government can’t control beef prices for farmers, according to Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Pippa Hackett.
Senator Hackett, who is a beef suckler and sheep farmer, supports better labelling for grass-fed produced beef because she believes consumers are entitled to know how an animal was reared, on pasture or in a shed, and how it was slaughtered.
Acknowledging the Bord Bia label, she believes work is needed to increase the standard of labelling by providing a lot more information to consumers in the future.
She said the switch to organic farming on her Offaly farm, which has 35 suckler cows and 200 sheep on 200 acres, has resulted in considerable savings and had made their farm more profitable.
However, she acknowledged organic farming is not an option for all farmers.
In an interview with The Clare Champion, she described the centralisation of meat processing as a huge problem and a “mistake”.
“Previously, we had local abattoirs and butchers in towns. For me, losing this was a mistake. We have supermarkets supplying meat now with the loss of the local corner shop and greengrocers.”
She expects the new Food Ombudsman will have statutory powers, and recalled this was something that Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue fought for in the Programme for Government, which the Green Party was happy to support.
She said it went beyond meat processing, there is a whole aspect of food production, whether it is pricing or other issues.
“We are transposing the Unfair Trading Practices Directive from the EU into Ireland and hopefully this will have some impact in this field as well.”
Asked if she accepted that trust has broken down between beef farmers and meat processors, the minister acknowledged this has been an issue for quite a while.
“Beef prices are great at the moment, which is wonderful. How long will it last. It is a cycle with prices going up and down.
“It is hugely frustrating for farmers and I totally sympathise with that, it is very hard to run any business when you have no real certainty.
“We can’t get involved in setting prices, that is essentially a commercial activity that is impacted by supply and demand,” the minister said.
Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmer Association(ICSA) general secretary, Eddie Punch said the Food Ombudsman was established as a result of the Unfair Trading Practices Directive, which is primarily concerned with examining the relationship between the seller, who is dealing directly with a supermarket.
Mr Punch said the ICSA has been calling for the establishment of a meat regulator, which would have the power to examine the books of the main players in the food chain to establish where the money is going.
Acknowledging there is costs incurred by various operators along the food chain, he said there is a need to establish if farmers are getting a fair price, after a recent ICSA survey found a farmer receives about 40% of the final retail supermarket price.
He stressed a new regulator needs to have forensic auditing powers to provide answers to key questions around what is being paid from farm to fork in the meat industry.
He said there is a new proposal in the pipeline to for companies with a turnover of more than €750 million to open their books and provide information on what profits they are making including their subsidiaries.
It is hoped that this would cover some of the big beef producers. He said there is a consultation process for the proposed introduction of a need meat regulator.
He confirmed beef prices are at a new high compared to recent years because of increased demand and a reduction in supply. Heifers are now selling for €4.20 per kilo.
by Dan Danaher