A promised Food Ombudsman will not be called an ombudsman or a regulator and will not investigate cartel-like behaviour in the food industry.
The creation of a Food Ombudsman office was a commitment under the Programme for Government and was hoped to offer a solution to disputes in the food industry such as those seen during the beef protests of 2019.
The new body will instead be called the Office for Fairness and Transparency with the aim of providing for ‘principles of fairness and transparency in the agricultural and food supply chain’.
New legislation underpinning the office was scrutinised by the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee last week with Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue telling its members that “the key thing here is the effectiveness of the office and the work that it does not necessarily the title.”
He said during the consultation process for the new laws, it became clear use of the word ‘Ombudsman’ wouldn’t be ‘suitable’, explaining there are laws already in place to prevent its overuse, particularly by bodies not carrying out the functions of an Ombudsman.
Sein Fein Agriculture spokesperson Matt Carthy told the hearing one of the reasons why farmers have sought an office was to investigate the complaints of farmers of cartel-like behaviour by processors or retailers, adding that the current competition authorities (CCPC) are ‘clearly not up to that task’
“They got complaints, and they never even went to processors. They actually went back to the farmers and told them unless you find the evidence, we can’t do anything. Whose job is it to find the evidence?” he asked.
Minister McConalogue said the new office will bring transparency into the supply chain and be a body that can speak and ‘act authoritatively in that regard’. Competition law, he said, is a matter for the CCPC.
“The key thing with cartel-like behaviour is if people are coming together to keep things (prices) lower than what they should be.
“An office such as the one proposed can shine a light on what’s happening in the supply chain and can help and can make reports and recommendations to the CCPC and to the department.
“Something like cartel-like behaviour is a criminal matter and is something that there needs to be evidence for,” the minister said.
The decision to not include a ban on below-cost selling in the new legislation was also discussed at the hearing, with the minister pointing out such a measure was tried in Ireland before and failed.
“If you put a restriction in on what something can be sold at, it doesn’t stop those that are buying that product from trying to squeeze those they are buying it from in every way possible.
“When you talk to farm producers, what they want to ban is below-cost buying of their produce. We are trying to build a healthier supply chain and one that respects the primary producer and has the capacity to put in place codes of conduct,” he said.
The new office will have a board which shall consist of a chairperson and five ordinary members, of which two shall be primary producers.