Thousands of farmers protest over beef prices

The first nationwide demonstrations at meat factories for almost 15 years began yesterday with thousands of farmers assembling at 30 meat plants around the country in support of IFA’s 24-hour beef price protest.

The protest began at 3pm on the bank holiday and is expected to cause disruption to slaughtering activities at abattoirs today. The protest comes as factories step up production to prepare for the traditional increase in demand coming up to Christmas.

IFA president Eddie Downey said farmers were angry at the €350 per head cattle price gap that had now opened up with our main export market in the UK. “Beef farmers have had a very tough year, and with our main markets now recovering strongly, they are not prepared to tolerate loss-making prices any longer,” he said.

Meat Industry Ireland, which represents the processing industry, condemned the nationwide blockade as “unnecessary, misguided and counterproductive”.

The group said the action would damage Ireland’s export reputation, without having any impact on EU beef prices.

“Cattle prices are strengthening and the trend from the market is positive,” it said.

“While Irish cattle prices have been weaker this year, prices across the entire EU have fallen. This is a direct result of a significant drop in EU beef consumption, which has fallen by 700,000 tonnes since 2010.”

The IFA president said that for the past 12 months, farmers had been hit by plummeting prices that had decimated their incomes. “Farmers cannot continue to sell cattle at a loss,” he said.

Downey said nobody was able to explain to farmers why Irish beef prices were €350 behind those paid to their counterparts in the UK. “In the last number of weeks, prices in the UK have increased by more than €100 without any increase in Irish prices which are now below the EU average,” he said.

He called on the meat factories to reflect the improved market situation in beef prices to Irish farmers without further delay.

IFA national livestock chairman Henry Burns said livestock farmers were very angry with the failure of the Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney to tackle the factories on the issue that has seriously damaged farm incomes since January.

Latest figures from Teagasc, the agriculture and food development authority, show an average reduction in income of 22% on cattle-rearing farms.

The latest nationwide demonstration follows months of regional and limited protests by farmers. In March, hundreds of farmers gathered outside the Department of Agriculture in Dublin to highlight their anger about cuts to beef prices paid to them.

Two months later, farmers unloaded hay bales outside the department’s offices in Kildare Street, accusing Mr Coveney of siding with the beef factories.

In July, farmers staged protests outside retail outlets in Kerry, accusing supermarkets and processors of “profiteering” on the back of excessive beef and lamb price cuts to livestock farmers. County IFA chairman Sean Brosnan led the protests which targeted Tesco, SuperValu and Dunnes Stores outlets in Tralee. A month later, more than 200 farmers commandeered 800 shopping trolleys at Tesco in Naas, Kildare to protest beef price cuts as well as specification changes.

Q AND A

Q. What is the latest farm protest all about?

A. It is a demonstration by beef farmers protesting at the prices they are being paid for their cattle.

Q. Who organised the protest and how long will it last?

A. It is a 24-hour protest organised by the Irish Farmers Association and lasts until 3pm today.

Q. What form is the protest taking?

A. The IFA is calling it a ‘beef price protest’ outside 30 meat plants across the country. It involves thousands of farmers demonstrating outside abattoirs.

Q. Is it simply that — a peaceful protest?

A. It depends how you look at it. Meat producers say the protests amount to a blockade but the IFA has refused to characterise it as such.

Q. Why is that?

A. It is likely to have something to do with a previous mass protest that ended up in the courts.

Q. When was that and what happened?

A. This is the first major nationwide action since 2000 when the courts ended up imposing large fines on the IFA over its role in blockading some factories.

Q. Could the IFA face fines this time?

A. Possibly, although IFA president Eddie Downey told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that staff at the meat plants would be let in and out, he would not say whether vehicles would be allowed in and out.

Q. Aren’t the farmers allowed to protest?

A. Yes, but they are not allowed to break the law and if they effectively shut down those plants the organisers could be in trouble.

Q. Will the protest affect the consumer?

A. No. There will still be plenty of meat in butcher shops and on supermarket shelves.

Q. What is the farmers’ main ‘beef’ with the meat plants?

A. They say they are not being paid enough for their work and are being unfairly treated.

Q. Aren’t Irish beef farmers paid the same as in other EU markets?

A. No. UK markets are paying higher prices for imported Irish beef, but these are not being passed on to farmers here and, consequently, they are not seeing the benefit of those higher prices.

Q. What is the difference in price being paid here and in the UK?

A. There is a price gap of €350 per animal between what is paid here and what is paid in Britain for cattle.

Q. That doesn’t seem to make much sense.

A. The beef farmers here and the IFA agree. Britain took over half of Irish beef exports in the past year and it is hard to understand how price increases there had not been passed on to Irish farmers who have been making significant losses on their animals since last winter.

Q. So, what exactly is the price difference?

A. In the last number of weeks, prices in the UK have increased by over €100 without any increase in Irish prices. Irish prices are now below the EU average.

Q. What are the meat producers saying?

A. Meat Industry Ireland, which represents meat processors, said the beef sector is in a strong position, but beef consumption in the EU market is down due to weaker consumer spending and weaker demand for beef.

Q. How much do our farmers need for their cattle to make a reasonable profit?

A. Teagasc figures show that on our most efficient farms, producers need a base price of at least €4 per kg.

Q. Are they getting that?

A. Not at all. Current prices in Britain for medium grade steers are running at the equivalent of €4.74/kg which is €1/kg higher than the €3.73/kg Irish price.

Q. What does that mean to the Irish beef farmer?

A. It means he or she is operating at a loss.

Q. What is Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney doing about all this?

A. Not a lot, according to the farmers.

Q. What is his response to the protests?

A. He says it is neither appropriate nor legally possible for him to intervene on the question of beef prices.

Q. Is there any hope on the horizon?

A. Possibly. Mr Coveney has said Ireland will be exporting beef to the US within the next few weeks. This is at a time when, for the first time, beef in the US is at the same price as European beef.

Q. Any other markets or opportunities out there?

A. China. Mr Coveney says progress is being made and he will visit the country in the coming weeks for talks.


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