What is going on in the beef talks?
Q&A on the ongoing issues between the Beef Plan Movement and Meat Industry Ireland
Individual farmers have resumed protests outside some plants while BPM leaders remain under threat of injunction by MII
There was a detailed document on the table to address the beef crisis generated by all key parties; what went wrong?
The four-page document released after protracted negotiations on Wednesday last was comprehensive with some notable wins for farmers, but no guarantees on price.
In spite of Meat Industry Ireland (MII), which represents meat processing plants, striking a positive note, prices at marts have been unchanged since.
Irish Farmers Association (IFA) president Joe Healy immediately conceded beef farmers would be disappointed because of a lack of movement on price.
Beef Plan Movement, whose protests led to the talks, remained silent at that point. It has explained since it considered the document a draft proposal, on which it had to consult its members.
This was done in a series of regional meetings on Friday. The outcome was a resounding “No”; it was simply not enough.
Some contend changes will benefit the dairy sector rather than suckler cattle kept especially for the production of beef.
Since then individual farmers have resumed protests outside some plants while Beef Plan Movement leaders remain under threat of injunction if they organise pickets outside plants.
Who are Beef Plan Movement?
It is a grassroots organisation made up of beef farmers all over the country. They describe themselves as a volunteer group seeking to bring transparency to the Irish beef sector, “to address power, money and greed” issues along the supply chain and demand measures to enable them operate viably.
Many of the group are small or part-time farmers running operations at a loss. Their pickets outside meat plants earlier this summer prompted Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed to convene the talks.
What were the chances the talks would have been successful?
In short, nil. There had been a precondition that pricing would not be on the table for negotiation. Under EU competition law, a price cannot be set for a sector, such as a minimum price that would apply across all meat plants.
A deal of sorts was fashioned, was it significant?
There were significant concessions from the farmer perspective, it has to be said. IFA secured a strong position for additional funding for targeted direct support for suckler cows. It was also agreed that Bord Bia would develop a beef market price index model and that an independent grocery regulator is required.
There was some progress on price-controlling measures in place, which farmers claim amount to anti-competitive practices operated by meat plants. Many of the changes are technical, notably in how animals are rated from a quality point of view, though Beef Plan Movement wanted additional changes, in relation to age restrictions.
Many of the measures will introduce more transparency into the beef supply chain – from farm to mart, to meat processing plant, to supermarket shelves.
What is the prospect on prices increasing for farmers in the short-term?
Unfortunately, there is little prospect of a price lift. The shadow of Brexit is getting darker by the day with increased prospect of no deal between the UK and the EU – the former is by far the most important export market for Irish beef.
That uncertainty has been the biggest factor in a price decline which means that a farmer selling cattle today is getting €150 to €200 per animal less than this time last year.
Another factor that will compound difficulties is the volume of animals for sale peaks in the autumn every year, such is the production cycle.
All this is re-applying pressure on Creed to intervene again to resolve a dispute that has quickly become repolarised.