EU review of labelling only answer to beef crisis

Q&A: Martin Ferris
EU review of labelling only answer to beef crisis

Sinn Féin has pledged to do all in its power to help Irish beef farmers get through current difficulties.

With its political influence north and south of the border, the party is well placed at tackle one of the cattle market problems — reduced live exports to the North, attributed to major UK retailers requiring either British beef (born, reared, and slaughtered in the UK), or Irish beef (born, reared, and slaughtered in the Republic of Ireland).

This market demand has reduced live exports from southern Ireland, for fattening in Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland has gone from net live trade imports of 62,000 cattle in 2010 to net exports of 10,000 in 2013).

Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesman, Martin Ferris TD, said: “The trade of cattle across the island is a traditional agricultural activity for centuries.

“This is particularly true of trade between the Six Counties and the West.

“Farmers and marts depend on this trade and the consequences of this trade being prevented due to the movement from what is deemed as one member state to another are detrimental for numerous beef farmers.

“The only way to solve this issue practically is to secure a derogation from Europe in relation to the EU beef labelling rules, which will allow for our unique circumstances and will open the way to free trade across the island.

“The crisis in the beef industry has caused hardship and stress among producers recently and it seems that the government and [Agriculture] Minister Simon Coveney are happy to let the market rule.

“The problem is that the market can be manipulated by the beef barons and by the large multiple retailers who change specification and introduce penalties at will, while the minister sits on his hands, said Mr Ferris, who has announced a high-level Sinn Féin meeting of farmers and the beef industry.

Increasing live exports to Northern Ireland would help southern farmers. Is that feasible, and how would Sinn Féin go about making it possible?

The reason Sinn Féin is calling this high level meeting is to get all the players together around a table to try to find a solution. At the moment, there is a dramatic change in the way cattle people are doing business on this island due to EU labelling conditions.

The beef processors are using the labelling issue, which in reality means nothing, to penalise farmers. Imagine if Ireland was not partitioned, would it be acceptable for beef farmers to be penalised for bringing cattle from Cavan to Fermanagh? Is it acceptable now?

Sinn Féin is meeting those in the trade to find the best way to resolve this issue and bring the trade back to the levels at which it used to operate. It is an exploratory meeting, to see what we can do.

It looks like an EU derogation on the labelling issue is a solution and we will explore that.

There is an agreed all island animal health strategy under the auspices of the North-South Ministerial Council.

Sinn Féin supports the free movement of cattle across the island. We have in place an all-island health and welfare strategy to bring us to the same disease status across the island.

Sinn Féin would prioritise the beef sector, particularly in terms of opportunities within the next Rural Development Programme.

We would work with farmers to improve their efficiency and farm practices, we would encourage co-operation to achieve efficiency.

We would champion fairness in the supply chain and would not be offering protection to the beef barons.

Sinn Féin does not believe it’s a matter of playing North against the South. The traditional agriculture activity of trade particularly with the West of Ireland is a vital component of our trading patterns. We can’t allow the big beef barons and retailers to dictate the story and to remain unchallenged by the minister and the Department of Agriculture, Food, and the Marine.

The growth for the beef industry will be in the export market, instead of competing with each other on our small island, we need to compete together against the world markets.

Is the current situation of reduced live exports from the south good news for northern cattle farmers?

Broadly no. Beef prices are still low. It is not the case that prices have increased dramatically for northern farmers due to decreased trade with the south.

Beef prices keep falling despite government moves to improve the situation. How can Sinn Féin do any better?

Regulation of the industry is the way forward. We have a proposal regarding a regulator for the beef industry that can give the farmers more strength and say. Competition law needs to be introduced to the beef industry.

The power to do that is not devolved to the North. We need to introduce competition law but the Southern government could start protecting farmers to a greater extent or encourage this being done at an EU level.

You are starting off with a high-level meeting of farmers and the beef industry. What are the details of the meeting?

Sinn Féin has received representation from the marts on this matter and there was a desire to meet with the agriculture minister from the North, Michelle O’Neill MLA.

Then, the MEPs are also hearing about this situation with the cross-border trade and it is fitting that they be involved in any representations in the EU parliament about labelling or a derogation. I have organised the meeting and it is hoped that the farm organisations locally will attend also.

The meeting will take place on Friday, July 11, in Ballinasloe, time and venue to be confirmed shortly.

Minister Coveney says producer groups could bring beef farmers advantages, such as scale and market presence. Do you agree?

Cattle prices are down 80c/kg, which is about €300 on finished animals. That is a huge loss to the producers and difficulties and delays persist in getting cattle killed with factories discounting some cattle by more than the QPS.

There is a breakdown of trust between the farmer producer and the factories and a more transparent system operating would rebuild that trust.

Penalties being imposed on some grade of cattle are not acceptable.

Yes, of course, producer groups are a good idea, but it depends on how transparent the whole system operates. It is hard to know what is effective, if we have no idea what information the beef factories have. It is widely believed that factories have database access and if so, that would be an issue to be resolved, if that information was allowing for manipulation of the market.

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