Action is needed NOW, ministers on food labelling

Declan O'Brien

Agriculture ministers Simon Coveney and Michelle O'Neill
Agriculture ministers Simon Coveney and Michelle O'Neill

Little progress seems to have been made in last week's meeting between Minister Coveney and the North's agriculture minister, Michelle O'Neill.

While the announcement that the two ministers are to approach British retailers with a view to seeking some movement on the food labelling issue is a positive development, few will be holding their breath that any meaningful concessions will be forthcoming.

It is sad state of affairs but the European single market does not appear to count for a whole lot when it comes to the export of live cattle across the Border and to Britain.

That two ministers are going cap in hand to seek concessions from the supermarkets on this issue is making a mockery of the very notion of a single market.

Some argue that this not a trade issue but rather a market access problem. But surely market access and trade are one and the same thing. And if it is a trade issue then why is Government talking to the British retailers instead of talking to the British government or bringing it up in Brussels?

A number of the parties involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations claim that progress is being made and attempts to get Brussels involved would only slow the talks down further. This may be true but to the outside eye, very little has been achieved by the softly-softly approach over the last 12 months.

At the heart of the matter is a reluctance of the British multiples to brand their beef with two labels of origin. For example, that meat was from an animal which was raised in Ireland but finished in Britain.

However, the Spaniards and Italians have no such problems with dual labelling. Some would say that the labelling issue is a ploy to prevent free trade and it should be forcefully countered as such.

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Over the last year the ploy has worked very well, given that it has been one of the tools used by the industry to drive down prices. The value of finished stock is back by between €250 and €300/hd as a consequence.

Given that the factory kill has exceeded 30,000hd for most of the year, and that beef prices in Britain have remained stable during the period, this means the factories and retailers have been making a hell of a lot more out of the Irish kill over the last 12 months.

The ICSA estimate that the figure is around €168m. That is €168m that has been taken out of farmers' pockets. Beef and suckler farmers are already losing €120-130/ha, they can't or shouldn't be subsidising the profits of processors and supermarkets from their single farm payments.

The Minister and Government needs to take more decisive action on this matter.

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