Farm Ireland

Saturday 16 December 2017

Early troubles for dairy quality scheme

Declan O'Brien and Darragh McCullough

Fears over 'split milk pool' and over-stringent testing create backlash

Plans to launch a new dairy farmer quality assurance scheme by Bord Bia early next year appear to be floundering.

The problems centre on the possibility of dairy farmers who fail additional inspections for the scheme being demoted to second-class milk suppliers even if their milk meets all of their dairy processors' existing quality standards.

The differences between Bord Bia, milk processors, feed suppliers and the farm organisations over the scheme surfaced during the first three meetings of the technical advisory committee which includes industry stakeholders and is responsible for designing the scheme.

A key concern for both the processors and farm organisations relates to the issue of inspections for the scheme.

While a number of parties to the negotiations declined to be quoted, they claimed that draft regulations for the scheme were so stringent that a milk supplier could fail an inspection for not having paperwork in order.

This would force a dairy farmer out of the scheme, even if their milk was perfectly acceptable in terms of quality when tested on collection every second day by their dairy. Processors fear that a tough stance on the scheme rules could result in a split milk pool, with some suppliers in the quality assurance programme and others excluded.

While Bord Bia insisted that the scheme would be a voluntary one, milk processors and farm organi- sations have argued that the practicalities of the dairy sector mean that all of the country's 18,000 dairy farmers will be required to join any new national quality assurance programme.

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"How can we collect quality assured milk from farmer A and then collect milk from farmer B in the same lorry even though he is not in the scheme?" an official with a southern co-op asked.

"If we create a split milk pool we'd have to collect the milk separately, process it separately and then market it separately. That's not going to happen," he said.

The misgivings about the scheme have led to accusations that Bord Bia are attempting to impose their beef quality assurance template on the dairy sector wityhout taking account of the differences between the enteprises.

The success of the beef quality assurance scheme in securing and maintaining premium markets is one of the main drivers to get a similar initiative going before milk output expands significantly in 2015. However, industry sources are adamant that Bord Bia's beef quality assurance scheme cannot be simply replicated in the dairy sector.

"A basic pass or fail scenario might work in the beef and sheep sectors but it won't work in dairying," a farm representative said.

"The reality is that we'll have to work with farmers who do not meet the quality assurance scheme standards and give them a period of grace to get things in order. Excluding farmers for minor infringements could put them out of business," he added.

Any agreed scheme will be subject to clearance from the Irish National Accreditation Board, an independent auditing body, before going live.

Difficulties are also understood to have arisen between Bord Bia and other bodies on the technical advisory committee. These relate to the quality assurance standards for feed and accreditation for milking machine technicians.

Michael Maloney of Bord Bia accepted there were issues that had to be addressed but said the committee was in the very early stages of designing the scheme.

"I am very confident all these differences will be ironed out," he said. However, Mr Maloney would not be drawn on a start date for the scheme.

The dairy quality assurance scheme will be funded jointly by the Irish Dairy Board, Kerry Group and other milk processors. It has a budget of €2.4m.

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