Meat factories face serious disruption this week after vets began a work-to-rule action in plants across the country yesterday.
The dispute centres on the Department of Agriculture's attempt to reduce the cost of their meat inspection service by rationalising the roles of vets by bringing in their own specially trained agricultural officers.
The ratcheting up of the row will be a concern for farmers with stock fit for slaughter over the coming weeks.
While the work-to-rule action only started on a very limited basis yesterday, it is expected to be extended to all the major meat plants today. The dispute could progress to an all-out strike following a recent ballot by the vets' union, Veterinary Ireland.
Plants that have already implemented some of the cost-saving measures that the Department is attempting to roll out will be the main targets of any strike action. It is believed that this includes many of the plants of the three big meat processors, AIBP, Dawn and Kepak.
The work-to-rule is likely to slow down kill-lines in plants. Many vets currently assist the flow of carcasses by carrying out extra trimming where required in the case of faecal or abscess contamination.
Depending on the line, a work-to-rule scenario could slow down throughput by as much as 30pc. Factory management are likely to compensate for this with longer days or extra shifts. No disruption in the overall supply of meat is likely unless the dispute escalates further.
Veterinary Ireland representatives did not meet with Department officials last week, despite a statement from the Department that the union had "been written to and invited in for discussions".
Although it has been nearly 20 years since vets went on strike at Irish meat plants, veterinary representatives are preparing themselves for the worst.
"At the rate that the Department is going, it looks increasingly likely that we will have to resort to [an] all-out strike on this issue," said Veterinary Ireland's Donal Lynch.
There are more than 600 private vets earning €68/hr, or €18.3m a year, by providing a meat inspection service for the Department.
Commenting on the dispute, ICSA president Gabriel Gilmartin said that it was not clear that replacing part-time vets with full-time officials would actually translate into substantial savings. "The Department needs to spell out how keeping on extra full-time officials will lead to lower costs at a time when government policy is to reduce public sector numbers," he said. "Factory work also supports the viability of large animal practices that in turn are providing a competitive service to farming."
ICMSA president Jackie Cahill said that his priority was to make sure that any change did not increase costs for beef producers.
The Department refused to divulge any details on how many agricultural officers it plans to train to replace vets or when they will start. Its expenditure reviews have suggested that the Government could save €5m a year by reducing its reliance on vets.