Co-op umbrella group ICOS says the meat factories and large retail multiples have usurped free trade in the way they apply beef labelling regulations, a claim rejected by meat factory group Meat Industry Ireland.
ICOS says the IFA, the UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and other farmer bodies should join forces to push for live exports between Ireland and the UK.
ICOS national marts executive Ray Doyle and ICOS marts chairman Michael Spellman have just returned from meetings in England with NFU beef chairman Charles Sercombe.
The ICOS executives said Irish-owned factories in Britain will not cull Irish-sourced livestock because they are gaining €200 extra per head by processing the animals in Ireland.
“If UK farmers were free to come over here to buy cattle, that money could be in their hands,” said Mr Doyle.
“Free trade between Ireland and Britain has been usurped by the way the meat factories and multiples have hijacked labelling to their ends.
“The retailers and meat factories contend that the restrictions on live exports are all about EU regulations.
"They talk about consumer requirements, and what the consumer wants. But where are the questions that they have allegedly asked the consumer?
“Where does it say the consumer wants to eat beef that has been moved less than four times? The only credible research I’ve seen is that consumers want quality beef at the right price.”
ICOS outlined to the NFU that Ireland’s beef exports to Britain amount to around 250,000 tonnes of carcass meat annually, some 88,000 tonnes of which goes onto retailers’ shelves.
If these 88,000 tonnes came from live cattle exports, that would equate to around 275,000 cattle, ICOS noted.
When Ireland joined the then EEC in 1973, it exported about 400,000 live cattle to the UK annually, benefiting farmers on both sides of the water, ICOS stated. Live exports to the UK currently stand at 9,000 per annum.
ICOS also told the NFU that free trade was being inhibited by the Irish factories’ QPS bonus system.
It cited the stipulation that cattle which have moved holdings within the last 70 days before slaughter do not qualify for the QPS bonus.
Additionally, cattle with more than four movements between farms are penalised.
Yet, ICOS notes, the Bord Bia Beef and Lamb Quality Assurance Scheme allows for multiple movements between quality-assured farms before and during the final 70-day period prior to slaughter.
“The anti-trade conditions created by livestock export and movement restrictions is disastrous for farmers and marts alike,” said Mr Doyle.
“The meat factories allege that the UK consumer demands to know where the animal was born, reared, and slaughtered, and to achieve this clarity they have effectively locked cattle on the island of Ireland until they are fit for slaughter.
"In fact, this is more to do with trade control than having any legitimate quality or consumer basis.”
However, Meat Industry Ireland, the Ibec representative body for Irish meat factories, rejected these claims.
MII’s senior executive for meat, Cormac Healy, said: “The ICOS assertions are completely wide of the mark.
These issues, including beef labelling rules and market specifications, have been addressed on numerous occasions in the Beef Roundtable. They are key customer requirements and this has been independently verified by Bord Bia at the 2015 roundtable meetings.
In fact, market research suggests that key customers’ preferences veer towards increasing residency periods reflecting the ongoing debate on ‘whole of life’ quality assurance. It is time to move on.”
He said the in-spec bonus is paid by individual processors to reward and incentivise the production of animals which meet market specifications.
The bonus simply reflects the animals most desired for the marketplace and the eligibility criteria in relation to residency period and number of farm residencies during the lifetime of the animal have not changed in recent years,.
“There is a current malaise in the UK and wider EU market that underlines the need for tighter adherence to market specifications and key customer requirements,” said Mr Healy.
“Any diminution in meeting such specifications will simply put Irish exports at a further disadvantage in the marketplace. We need to focus on working to ensure the small number of animals which currently fall short on these eligibility criteria actually meet them in the future and secure the bonus.”
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