Business Farming

Thursday 2 October 2014

The current crisis in Irish beef is unique in being totally man-made

Analysis: Beef Open Day

Ann Fitzgerald

Published 18/06/2014 | 02:30

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The Derrypatrick Herd on display. Photo: Seamus Farrelly

Teagasc seems to have compiled an impressive line-up and schedule for its flagship Beef Open day tomorrow at Grange, where the numbers that turn up and the prevailing mood will be an indicator of whether or not farmers see a future in the sector.

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This is potentially the first large-scale gathering of Irish beef farmers since prices went into freefall many months ago.

This past few weeks has seen the hosting of a couple of meetings of the beef activation group, which is now under the chairmanship of Michael Dowling, and there has also been a meeting between farmer representatives on both sides of the Irish Sea.

But no matter how well-intentioned the participants in these groups undoubtedly are, one wonders whether they will get beyond tinkering around the edges. The accompanying example of research undertaken by Teagasc illustrates the nature of the challenge and the type of issues now facing many Irish beef farmers.

Because, yes, while there have been crises in the beef industry before, including the likes of BSE and horsemeat, the difference this time is that, insofar as I can tell in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the squeeze is entirely man-made and led by retailers.

I don't know whether there is anything untoward or uncompetitive going on at any level of the processing business but, if there is, maybe the establishment of a war-chest might entice some whistleblowing?

One of the points of contention is the innocuously-sounding word "spec". I read through the details and I can't help feeling that, if this were a boyfriend/girlfriend that you were trying to break up, it would be a perfect way of saying "it's not you, it's me".

Then, up to very recently, farmers were constantly being told that consumers were concerned with animal welfare. How ironic is it then that the beef industry now seems to intend sourcing a lot of the beef it requires from the dairy herd, where bull calves rarely get to suckle the cow. And, as reported in these pages last week, according to a spokesman for Britain's National Beef Association, "supermarkets have decided that they don't want black and white cattle anymore."

On the back of last year's horsemeat scandal, the British consumer is concerned about the provenance of their beef, the number of movements that an animal has had in its life.

Is the bottom line ever really about anything else than price?

This is not meant to be a dig at Teagasc or even at ICBF or Bord Bia, etc. who are, after all, just trying to play the hand they have been dealt in what is a difficult operating environment.

But where does all this leave Irish beef farmers? Has all their bending to rules been for naught? Is there any future in beef and, if so, for whom?

A lot of people will be doing a lot of soul-searching.

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