Beef farmers facing biggest crisis ever, says IFA

British retailers looking for younger beef

The IFA says cattle prices have fallen €200-€400 per head since this time last year

The IFA says cattle prices have fallen €200-€400 per head since this time last year

Thu, Aug 21, 2014, 01:05

The current difficulties in the beef industry have led to the biggest crisis to ever face livestock farmers, IFA president Eddie Downey has said.

He said farmers were facing a “catastrophic drop in income” as the price of cattle continued to fall and retailers changed their specifications for beef.

Mr Downey said cattle prices have fallen €200-€400 per head since this time last year, depending on the type of animal being sold.

More than half of Irish beef is sold to the UK but in the past year British retailers and meat factories have been rigorously enforcing specifications, rejecting bull beef from animals older than 16 months.

An IFA meeting in Navan on Tuesday night heard that some retailers were now talking about preferences for beef killed at 14 months, and 12 months in some cases.

Mr Downey said the drive towards younger beef was not coming from consumers but was driven from the supermarket chains trying to get a competitive advantage. “There is no rational reason for it, and it is illogical from the point of view of producing beef.”

He said no Irish farmer could have a grass-fed animal ready by that age, and this would result in animals being fed on grain only and the unique taste of grass-fed beef being lost.

Pack sizes

Bord Bia’s beef and livestock sector manager Joe Burke said there were a number of reasons for the crisis. Supermarkets were seeking younger animals partly because the carcas weights were often lighter. This resulted in more affordable pack sizes for consumers. Narrow specifications also meant a greater uniformity of meat on offer, making it easier to sell similar-looking packs of steaks.

He said British retailers had not changed their specifications but Irish meat factories were paying a higher price for animals which meet the UK specifications and less for those that did not.

He said there was also a significant increase in supply of cattle here, with 112,000 extra cattle produced this year compared with the same time last year.

Meat factories

Yesterday Mr Downey called on Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney to chair a meeting between farmers and the meat factories in a bid to resolve some of these issues.

He said cattle prices were rising in Britain and Northern Ireland so there was no justification for price cuts in the Republic. “The Minister simply hasn’t done his job here. He must ensure that there is strong competition and transparency in the beef sector.”

Mr Coveney said there had been a lot of confusion about market requirements.

“I made it very clear to processors that it is necessary to clarify and simplify specifications for customers so that farmers understand what exactly applies in terms of spec, bonuses and penalties.

“That confusion should not be allowed to continue to the autumn, and I expect that factories will respond positively to my request in the short term in the interest of a better functioning market.”

Speaking on behalf of meat factories, Meat Industry Ireland said there were no changes to specifications “for the foreseeable future”.

The Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers’ Association called on farmers and farm organisations to consider withdrawing from a quality assurance scheme that gives farmers an increased price for meeting certain standards. ICSA president Patrick Kent said the softly-softly approach to retailers and meat processors was not working.