Beef sector disgruntled as prices remain stunted

Conclusion to factory gate protests through signed agreement presents a false peace within the sector as famer dissatisfaction runs rife, writes Niall Hurson.

The total beef kill for 2019 is nearly 60,000 head of cattle behind 2018 figures. Delays in getting cattle slaughtered is causing frustration and despair among beef farmers and is affecting basic stock purchasing on some farms. Those lucky enough to have their cattle accepted by factories are met with the same unrelenting bad prices which has been losing beef farmers money for months. Since October last year over 190 complaints were made to the Competition and Consumer Protection Authority (CCPC) about the beef sector.

After weeks of protesting at factory gates a more lasting agreement was found on September 15 at the Agriculture House in Dublin. The deal, entitled ‘Irish Beef Sector Agreement’ is to be carried out in conjunction with the Backweston conclusions, outlining the next steps for the beef industry. The agreement focuses on what it calls immediate benefits for farmers, involving a number of interventions for beef producers. These benefits are to include the introduction of a new bonus of 8c/kg for steers and heifers aged between 30-36 months, which meet all non-age-related existing criteria. An immediate increase in bonus for in-spec steers and heifers from 12c/kg to 20c/kg. The introduction of a new in-spec bonus of 12c/kg for steers and heifers under-30 months in the categories of grade O- and fat score 4+ which currently does not qualify for any bonus. The in-spec 70-day residency requirement has been reduced to 60 days.

As part of strand one and underpinning strand two of the agreement, a Beef Market Taskforce has been established to provide leadership in developing a sustainable pathway for the future of the beef sector in terms of economic, environmental and social sustainability. Taskforce progress has grinded to a halt though as the first meeting was due to take place on Monday October 14 but was abandoned due to a protest. Approximately 40 people were involved in the standoff outside the Department of Agriculture headquarters where they prevented Meat Industry Ireland (MII) representatives from entering the building. The protest took place as a result of a number of injunctions still held against protesters who picketed C&D Foods, a pet food company in Longford, during the beef protests. Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed told the Dáil the following day that protesters had engaged in behaviour outside acceptable norms with intimidatory tactics being used. A date has yet to be set for the Beef Market Taskforce to reconvene.

Further distrust within beef farming circles was witnessed on November 01 when a group of approximately 20 farmers staged a protest outside the offices of Bord Bia in Dublin, calling for an end of quality approved labels on meat imported into Ireland. The group briefly met officials from the agency and handed in a letter to Bord Bia's Chief Executive Tara McCarthy calling for age limits for cattle slaughter, the 70-day residency period and four movement rule to be abolished. It also called for Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) for Irish suckler beef. Bord Bia has rejected the mislabelling allegations with a spokesperson saying the “Origin Ireland logo can only be applied to meat products from animals born and reared on Quality Assured Irish farms in the Republic of Ireland and slaughtered at Quality Assured meat processing facilities in the ROI, with resultant meat processed and packed in ROI. It is misleading and untrue to state that non-Irish beef could carry the Origin Ireland logo.”

As part of the Irish Beef Sector Agreement, an immediate scientific review of the Quality Payment Grid by Teagasc will take place. The first stage of the review included a desk-top analysis of the pricing structure of the grid on the basis of meat yield/conformation. The pricing grid was originally developed from carcase dissection trials, based on recorded meat yields related to conformation and fatness grading. The meat yield increases with superior conformation and carcase value in turn is calculated as sum of the commercial value of individual meat cuts. The current pricing system is based on meat yield and market outlet and was hoped it would result in a price improvement for animals of good conformation when it first came into practice. Our current grid involves the carcass being graded on a 15-point scale which is subdivided into five classes consisting of E U R O P. These are then further divided into three fat classes.

Cooperation within the beef sector has improved dramatically since the factory protests concluded. With this said many farmers remain dissatisfied with efforts made to improve transparency. Distrust between the farmer and meat processors remains an area of concern with the question of the exact value factories receive for processing still unaccounted for.