“That Dáil Éireann:
— the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future acknowledgement that beef farmers have experienced serious hardship and low-income challenges in recent times;
— the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future commitment to ensure fairness,equity, and transparency in the food chain by establishing a new authority called the National Food Ombudsman (NFO) to enforce the European Union (EU) Directive No. 10622019/633 on Unfair Trading Practices in business-to-business relationships in the agricultural and food supply chain;
— that the beef sector:
— supports more than 70,000 beef farmers;
— supports 10,000 jobs across processing, distribution and transport; and
— is worth approximately €2.5 billion annually, and that the vast majority of this income remains in the rural economy;
— that Ireland is the fifth largest net exporter of beef in the world and the continuation of commercially driven unfair trading practices should not be used as a means of safeguarding this status;
— that small farmers and factory workers are being exploited by some Irish beef processors; and
— that beef producers are routinely penalised by processors through the targeted operation of stealth and opaque price fixing practices; and
calls on the Government to:
— recognise that the continuing centrality of the beef sector to the rural economy, and its role in generating fair farm incomes, requires a new and imaginative approach;
— accept that existing regulatory and competition protections have proven themselves to be manifestly inadequate with respect to protecting beef farmers from unfair price distortions, delivering credible levels of industry transparency and a just price to the beef farmer;
— accept that an NFO will not be able to give the kind of specific sectoral focus needed to identify and address the chronic price challenges imposed on farmers by the beef industry;
— act on the acknowledgement in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future of the important and unique role that the suckler sector plays in the beef industry by committing, in consultation with suckler farmers and their representatives, to the establishment of an independent beef regulator, with powers to compel and conduct independent audits of Meat Industry Ireland affiliated factories, in order to maintain and protect farm livelihoods from meat industry exploitation;
—empower the independent beef regulator to address, through statutory measures, the structurally embedded power imbalance created by the de facto monopoly of existing processors and retailers; and—ensure, in the interests of maintaining a level playing field, that, should the EU-Mercosur trade deal be ratified by the EU, Mercosur beef sold into the EU must be produced under the same standards, regulations and controls as those imposed on EU beef producers.”
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this very important motion calling for an independent beef regulator to be set up. I thank my Rural Independent Group colleagues for bringing forward this badly needed motion. I also acknowledge the work and collaboration of the farming organisations which have contacted all Members in the months since last year's general election. I thank them for their time and expertise and for engaging in discussions on this issue. I also thank staff members, Mr. David Mullins and Mr. Brian Ó Domhnaill, who work with the group, and I commend them on the hard work they have put into the motion.
The motion is focused. It is about achieving fairness and embedding in statute a commitment to price justice for beef farmers. In no other business or sector would we see producers running at a loss. I am aware of many beef and suckler farmers in my constituency who are running at a loss. It does not seem right or fair and it is an injustice that must be corrected. We are calling on all Deputies, rural and those outside rural areas, to support the motion. It is about justice and fairness. We do not need more tokenistic measures. We do not need an ombudsman which will not have powers to conduct audits of factories associated with Meat Industry Ireland. We need real change. The only way we will achieve that is through the establishment of an independent regulator with robust powers to stop once and for all the scandal taking place in this country.
We have 70,000 beef and suckler farmers who contribute greatly to our economy. I would go so far as to say they are the backbone of the rural economy but they are being treated very badly. The primary producer is the one that is not benefiting or gaining any sort of profit from their high quality produce. This country has a great tradition in beef and suckler farming and produces one of the highest quality products in the world, yet our farmers are not being fairly rewarded for their hard work, sacrifice and dedication. Farmers are being taken for granted. There are also issues around food security. Our food producers deserve fair play. That is what the motion is about and I call on all Deputies to support it.
The Government needs to accept that many small farmers and factory workers are being exploited by some Irish beef processors and that beef producers are routinely penalised by processors through the targeted operation of stealth and opaque price-fixing practices. They are in a no-win situation and that must change. To address this, we are calling on the Government to recognise that the continuing centrality of the beef sector to the rural economy and its role in generating fair farm incomes require a new and imaginative approach. More important, however, we need the Government to finally accept that existing regulatory and competition protections have proven manifestly inadequate with respect to protecting beef and suckler farmers from unfair price distortions, and delivering credible levels of industry transparency and a just price to the farmer.
This weakness in the current levels of protections is already recognised at the European level. If it were not, there would be no need for the introduction of measures such as the unfair trading practices directive. That in itself is a clear acknowledgement that farmers and those on the producing end of the food chain are routinely exploited. There is no other word for it. This exploitation has gone on for decades and must end. If the existing protections were strong enough or were even being enforced, such directives would be redundant. As it is, they are being ignored with impunity. Farmers are sick to the back teeth of the lack of transparency in how prices are set.
The Minister has commissioned three separate reports from Grant Thornton on this issue, at a cost of over €120,000. These reports have been rejected by farmers and bodies such as the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, and Irish Farmers Association, IFA. Only Meat Industry Ireland is happy with them and that tells us all we need to know. When Meat Industry Ireland is happy, there is a serious problem.
In March last, the IFA forcefully rejected claims by Meat Industry Ireland that beef farmers receive 80% of total sales revenue earned by processors. This was after the independent report by Grant Thornton was presented to members of the beef task force. Meat Industry Ireland claimed that “false assertions were made and prominently circulated that farmers only get €2 for every €10 spent on beef by a consumer.” However, as the IFA, ICSA and others have repeatedly made clear, even Grant Thornton admitted to the beef task force that it does not have the authority to access the information needed for a full and independent appraisal of the value of beef at all points in the supply chain. This is exactly the problem. Other serious deficiencies have been identified by independent farmers, including that processors do not pay for the fifth quarter, despite its value. Processors trim the fat from carcasses and penalise the producer, yet separately they sell the same fat for €200 per tonne. Processors penalise producers if carcasses exceed weight restrictions, yet they keep the excess weight and sell it. Processors do not pay farmers for the slaughtered animals' blood which has a very significant value for use as a protein source.
As part of the disease eradication scheme, significant numbers of cattle are being removed from farms at the expense of the taxpayer but are being gifted to feedlots to boost their profitability. All of this makes clear that the meat industry is presenting a front around compliance and transparency but no such price transparency exists. We know it, the meat industry knows it and, more importantly, the farmers know it.
Have things changed? No, because the meat industry in this State has been for some time a de facto cartel and a monopoly of extraordinary power and reach.
That has to change. The protected status of the industry and the inability of farmers and politicians to properly hold it to account must come to an end. I have seen at first hand how difficult it is for new operators to enter the market, including in my constituency in relation to the proposed Banagher Chilling project. In March of this year, I highlighted this issue and noted that considerable anger and frustration was emerging following the confirmation from An Bord Pleanála that it was not in a position to determine the outcome of an appeal related to the Banagher meat processing plant. An Bord Pleanála indicated it had yet to receive the inspector's report on the appeal, which was due by 1 March, and that this made it impossible for a determination to be made on the case. This latest setback is totally unacceptable and unjustified, particularly as the board had been due to make a decision as far back as 4 January. Several months later, no progress has been made and no information is available on where progress lies or what will be done.
This inadequate and inefficient operation and the inefficiency of An Bord Pleanála deepens the perception that any attempt to open up the meat market, whether in the midlands, Offaly, Tipperary, Limerick, Cork or Kerry will be subject to endless delays and bureaucratic nonsense and obstacles. I have repeatedly made it clear how important Banagher Chilling could be in terms of stimulating the local rural economy, expanding market competition and making County Offaly attractive as a site capable of generating inward investment, which we badly need. However, none of that appears to be registering with An Bord Pleanála in the slightest. It seems to be a law unto itself and doing its own thing. At this stage, the entire process is actively working against not only our local interest but also clear commitments in the programme for Government that beef farmers and the beef sector would be supported.
Less than ten days ago, the Minister stated that his Department's statutory responsibility in the context of meat plants is merely to approve slaughter plants in accordance with the European Union (Food and Feed Hygiene) Regulations and, after that, to ensure that approved plants operate in compliance with the EU's food hygiene legislation and animal health and welfare standards. He also said the Department cannot, in carrying out this process, take into account issues such as the concentration of ownership of inputs to processing, as it is outside the scope of this remit. That was a telling admission that there is no more power within the Department to ensure animal welfare than there is to ensure the economic welfare of farmers who produce the animals. That is also why we are not directing this motion at one Department only, but at the Government. This requires a whole-of-government approach because it touches on issues such as justice, financial exploitation and competition law, as well as agricultural policy.
I accept the Minister has made several commitments to transparency, particularly in terms of the establishment of a national food ombudsman. In his remark here last week, he stated he wanted to see such an office established or “something similar.” That "something similar” reference is not what we in the Rural Independent Group want. When the Minister was in opposition, he called on the Government to put an independent regulator in place. I do not know what has happened the Minister since that time. Since he went into the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, he has come up with a tokenistic measure, which is not good enough, does not cut it and will not be accepted by farmers because it will not have enough power.
We want a regulatory body with proper statutory powers capable of compelling audits on Meat Industry Ireland factories and making enforceable recommendations to that industry. We want a regulatory body that the industry cannot just choose to ignore or engage with as it sees fit. The Minister has accepted that the additional powers to be assigned to the new office by primary legislation go beyond those in the unfair trading practices directive and that they are currently the subject of public consultation, which closes today. We are told this new office will have a specific role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland. This is exactly what the Department and Bord Bia already do, so what is to be gained here, apart from tokenism, duplication and cost to the taxpayer? The public consultation seems, yet again, to be more concerned with giving the appearance of action and with tokenism than with changing how structures operate in this State.
As Mr. Edmund Graham, the beef chair of the Irish Cattle and Sheep Farmers Association, ICSA, stated only last week, the lack of co-operation by some players with the Grant Thornton report on price composition of the total value of the animal along the supply chain is also undermining the beef task force. The obvious conclusion to this is the need to establish a regulator, rather than just a food ombudsman, with the power to compel all actors along the food chain to co-operate. The ICSA was right to say the Grant Thornton report has laid bare the dysfunction within the sector. While the report was looking for where the margins lie along the food chain, it appears that those beyond the primary producer mark want to keep those margins hidden. It is a power imbalance we in the Rural Independent Group are seeking to address and set right. To that end, I hope our motion receives cross-party support.