Meat plant blockades ‘doing immeasurable damage’ to beef sector, Minister warns

Creed appeals to protesters to ‘step back for the sake of fellow farmers’

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed has appealed to protesters still demonstrating outside meat processing plants to "step back for the sake of their fellow farmers".

He warned that the blockades were “doing immeasurable damage to the [beef] sector and to its reputation in our overseas markets, which account for 90 per cent of the beef we produce”.

Opening a 3½-hour debate on the crisis, Mr Creed said he understood the frustration felt by farmers protesting at meat plants over the low prices they are getting for their beef.

Negotiations at the weekend resulted in an agreement between meat processors and six farm representative organisations but other farmers continued to protest and on Tuesday 350 employees at a plant in Co Tipperary were laid off temporarily.

But the Minister warned that the agreement could only come into force if all protests and blockades ended.

He added: “All parties to the agreement took responsibility for ensuring that this would happen, by recommending the Agreement to those they represent.”

Mr Creed outlined details of the agreement which aims to offer bonuses to farmers and address structural issues in the longer term and a taskforce will be set up on the future of the beef sector.

Job losses

His comments echoed remarks earlier in the Dáil by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar who warned that continued protests by farmers outside meat-processing plants could mean permanent job losses.

He told the Dáil that more 3,000 employees had been laid off temporarily and there was the possibility that 8,000 jobs could be affected in the long-term.

“I am deeply concerned that continued protests and continued blockades could mean meat plants may close permanently and this could do long-term damages,” he said.

Mr Varadkar reiterated that “there is no legal way to fix the price. That is not possible” and farmers were receiving the same average price as across the EU.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said many beef farmers made less than €10,000 a year and were struggling for their very survival. “Many see this as their last stand.”

She claimed the dispute was “the direct result of corporate greed”.

“Prices are decided by a very small and very powerful group of people, something that doesn’t feel right, that doesn’t look right or doesn’t smell right.”

‘Growing crisis’

She called for Mr Creed to organise another round of talks and the solution was for “highly profitable factories to increase the base price to farmers”.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the “Government and industry have reacted far too late to a growing crisis”.

He added that the issue had been exacerbated by Brexit and farmers were further enraged by the signing by the Government of the Mercosur beef deal that will allow four South American countries to export up to 100,000 tonnes of beef to the EU annually.

The Taoiseach pointed out that Mercosur was only at the level of political agreement. The Government had not signed the deal. It had been signed by all EU commissioners and might in two year’ time be put to all EU governments for ratification.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times