Like Neville Chamberlain waving a copy of the Munich Agreement with Germany in 1938, Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney appears to believe he has brokered "peace for our time" between warring farmers and beef processors.
But has he?
At around 1.30 yesterday morning, following nine hours of intensive talks in Kildare, agreement was reached between farmers’ groups and the meat industry on a wide range of issues related to beef specifications and how they impact on the price farmers receive at the factory gate.
But the specifications were only ever the minor part of the dispute, which culminated this month in blockades of beef factories by angry farmers.
Despite warnings from competition regulators about the risks of price fixing, the central issue remains the market price paid by processors to farmers. Cattle farmers say they need €4 per kilo just to break even. This week, the price crept up slightly, but only to about €3.75.
Whether any agreement that does not address this gap can be considered durable will become apparent in coming weeks. If prices don’t rise and farmers man the barricades again, the risk still remains that the agreement could unravel.
“Nothing is agreed unless everything is agreed,” said one source.
The Irish Farmers Association, whose executive council was locked in talks yesterday afternoon to plot a way forward for its members, insisted to The Irish Times that "the price campaign will continue".
"We have to see the price gap closed," said IFI spokesman Niall Madigan. The processors, through the Ibec-affiliated Meat Industry Ireland (MII), also acknowledged that the price issue was unresolved and said the farmers hadn't given a commitment that blockades wouldn't return.
The protests this week at 14 of the State's largest meat processing plants were designed to put the squeeze on the biggest family-run firms in the sector. Farmers, militant after a year of yawning gaps in the price of beef between Ireland and Britain, targeted the Kepak Group, Dawn Meats and the ABP Food Group, which between them control about 70 per cent of the market. The Irish meat processing industry has spawned a phalanx of millionaires. ABP is chaired by Larry Goodman, the quintessential "beef baron"and the original of the species. Dawn Meats is controlled by the wealthy Waterford-based Browne and Queally families. Kepak is controlled by children of its late founder, industry legend Noel Keating.
Farmers argue that retailers and processors cream off excessive profits at the expense of primary producers. According to figures provided by the state agency Teagasc, the average non-breeding beef farm made an average loss per hectare last year of €3. The profitability of the three main processing companies, however, is hidden from public view through their unlimited status: Neither Kepak, ABP or Dawn has to file detailed file accounts.
Arrow Group, one of the main companies within the Kepak Group, does file accounts, which show profits of €9 million on sales of €444 million in 2012. But the proportion of those figures attributable to beef processing is impossible to gauge.
The big retailers are even less forthcoming with their finances. Tesco, the market leader, does not break out detailed figures in relation to its profitability in Ireland. Aldi and Lidl, the ebullient German discounters, are similarly coy on how much money they make in this country.
Dunnes Stores doesn't even talk to the media, never mind reveal its profits. Musgrave, which owns SuperValu, is the only major Irish retailing group that does report its figures, although most of its revenues come from wholesaling. With such a dearth of financial information, it is impossible to dispel or confirm the farmers' argument that others in the supply chain are profiting at their expense.
Jer Bergin, the IFA’S national treasurer, says farmers want an increase in prices at the factory gates, but that they are not seeking an increase in the price paid by shoppers for their steaks or mince – a clever public relations position. But, de facto, this would mean either the retailers or the processors taking the hit. There is a price war raging in the Irish grocery sector, so it’s unlikely the retailers will voluntarily hand up some of their margin to help farmers. In any event, more than 90 per cent of Irish beef is exported, so actions by retailers on the ground in this country would make little difference to cattle farmers.
That leaves the processors, who deal with all the meat before it is exported, as the only viable targets of the farmers’ ire.
Caught in the crossfire are some 10,000 workers at the beef plants affected by the blockades. John Dunne, the sector organiser for Siptu, said many of its members had lost three days pay because of the protests.
“We will be looking for compensation from the employers,” he said. “We’ve also asked the Minister for a seat at the table in the [ongoing] Beef Forum talks. We still haven’t heard back from him.”
Both the farmers and the workers outwardly sympathise with each other’s position. In reality, their fortunes are a zero-sum game. If farmers achieve their aim, there will be less money available to pay the factory workers.
Lurking in the background this week was the newly formed Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), which warned both farmers and processors not to engage in price fixing.
John Evans, the commission's director of competition enforcement, wrote to all parties on Tuesday, warning them that price fixing is illegal. He told farmers they "must not enter into a collective agreement . . . regarding the prices at which members are willing to supply meat processors".
He also warned that an IFA-organised collective refusal by farmers to supply processors would be “a serious infringement of Irish and EU competition law” and hinted that future blockades of meat plants may also be illegal.
The intervention sparked a furious reaction from farmers. The IFA issued a relatively measued response, reiterating its right to protest. However, dairy farmers, through the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA, a participant in the Beef Forum, lashed the regulator as “partisan and brass-necked”.
"The authority's intervention will be seen as protecting the practices and profits of the meat factories at the expense of farmers," said ICMSA president John Comer.
“Where was [the CCPC] when farmers complained about . . . fertiliser prices, or veterinary medicines, or knackery fees?” Comer said. “Or the decade-old complaint about retailers dictating prices backwards to producers and wiping out farmer margins?”
Challenge for Downey
The next few weeks and months will present a significant challenge for the leadership of IFA chief
, who has marched all his troops up to the top of the hill in relation to the market price for beef. Will he be able to march them all back down again quietly, now that the competition authorities are watching the beef market?
If prices don#t rise “substantially”, Downey has said, protests will continue. But the inherent dichotomy in his position is that, legally, only the market can decide the prices that farmers receive. Downey can’t be seen to demand action to fix a market.
At the same time, in front of his members, he cannot be seen to give in if prices don’t soon breach the €4 per kilo barrier.
New markets may soon open up for farmers and processors. Coveney recently returned from China, where he tried to convince officials to open up the world's most populous nation to Irish beef. He believes an agreement is close. The Chinese ambassador recently visited Kepak, another indication that good news may be on the way.
Much depends on the market price for beef in the next few months. If it rises, then the dispute will go away. But if it doesn’t, farmers and processors will find themselves still squabbling, an unwelcome distraction as new opportunities line up on the horizon.