Stephen Cadogan: Tensions in the sector were obvious at the inaugural meeting of the taskforce

Stephen Cadogan: Tensions in the sector were obvious at the inaugural meeting of the taskforce

The next meeting of the beef taskforce will take place on Monday, January 9, with Irish and UK retailers invited to participate to discuss market trends and requirements, specifically bonus criteria currently applied to Irish beef cattle prices.

Hopefully, New Year hostilities will not break out in the sector in the meantime, but that cannot be guaranteed.

Tensions in the sector were obvious at the inaugural meeting of the taskforce on December 3.

And farmers’ patience has been tested further by the mid-December price comparison which showed that a heifer was worth €156 more (for a 330kg carcase) north of the border, a huge differential which widened from €105 a month earlier.

On December 3, the task force chairman requested and received a re-affirmation from stakeholders of adherence to a peace clause in the September 15 sector agreement, and that all relevant issues would be brought in the first instance to the task force for resolution.

However, two day later, IFA president Joe Healy led a protest at the Aldi distribution centre in Co Kildare, followed over the next 10 days by similar protests at the distribution centres of Lidl, Tesco, Musgraves, and Dunnes Stores.

Meat Industry Ireland jumped into the fight straight away, accusing IFA of an irresponsible and completely unjustified illegal blockading stunt, and not giving the task force due time to address the many actions in the beef sector agreement.

The flare-up clearly demonstrated the knife-edge potential for continuing low prices for beef cattle to trigger disruption in the sector, and the possibility even of a repeat of the early autumn blockade for over a month of beef factories.

Without a significant price increase, farmer organisations remain under pressure to act.

Newly elected IFA president Tim Cullinan has made that clear, saying the priority for the first month of his presidency is the beef crisis: “Factories have to realise if they want a beef industry in Ireland, they will have to pay for it.”

The Department of Agriculture is examining why the expected increase in the composite beef price didn’t occur, following the application of the September 15 sector agreement bonuses.

To make matters worse, processors enforced carcase weight restrictions and penalised for heavier cattle.

They indicated to the taskforce on December 3 these were pre-existing weight restrictions previously applied in a flexible manner, but enforced in December — apparently regardless of the inevitable backlash from farmers.

Farmer organisations also told the task force of difficulties with processors on producer organisations.

And the taskforce view expressed, that there should be no discrimination against farmers who participated in the autumn protests and more recent protests, also pointed to underlying tensions, even though processors rejected any claims of discrimination against protesters.

All told, there was little sign on December 3 of the task force developing a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector, in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability, as hoped for by Agriculture Minister Michael Creed.

He promised timelines for implementation of agreed commitments, and nothing less may be needed to keep the peace.

On December 3, the task force noted the gap between Irish and EU beef cattle prices, and the consensus amongst farm organisations that market trends indicated the price should increase.

The task force also noted the processors’ view that some price improvement should arise in the short-term.

That materialised the week after, with the R3 steer price increasing by about 4c/kg and the R3 heifer price gaining about 4.4c.

However, the glaring price differential revealed between farms in Northern and Southern Ireland proved processors have a long way to go to restore peaceful relations with cattle farmers.

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