The Irish Times view on the beef industry: Power imbalance

No-deal Brexit would create great difficulties for industry’s largest export market

Ger Dineen at the BeefPlan picket outside the Bandon meat processing plant, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

Ger Dineen at the BeefPlan picket outside the Bandon meat processing plant, Co Cork. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision

 

Confrontations between farmers, meat processors and the retail sector reflect an imbalance in power between the three interest groups, with the primary producers being the most exposed.

This has, for the second time in five years, led to picketing at factory gates. Beef Plan activists disrupted processing at 14 meat plants for 12 days and caused a 48 per cent drop in output before talks took place. Negotiations are expected to continue next week.

Militant action by Beef Plan members who said they were fighting for survival, appeared to take established farming organisations, the Department of Agriculture and Meat Industry Ireland (representing the processing sector) by surprise. As a consequence, it took days to put together an unwieldy negotiating group representing all interests.

Competing demands generated difficulties. Prices are at the heart of the dispute. Beef Plan claims its members get €2 out of every €10 in beef retail sales, while processors get €2.90 and the supermarkets €5.10.

They want a bigger – and fairer – share. Direct negotiations on price are banned under EU competition and consumer protection. So farmers complain about a lack of competition between processing plants and the dominant position of supermarkets.

They are demanding greater transparency on factory pricing and on technical matters involving insurance, transport and other charges.

The Department of Agriculture is being asked to provide a weekly digest giving minimum and maximum factory prices, rather than averages, while processors are being pressed to provide more information on the treatment of carcasses. A particular concern is that prices are affected where buying agents work for more than one processor.

Beef production is a cyclical industry and international prices are falling. Back in 2014, a developing beef shortage along with an upturn in prices helped to defuse farming tensions.

Those benign conditions may not recur. Ireland is the fifth -largest exporter of beef in the world and Britain is our largest market. A no-deal Brexit would create great difficulties.

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