Watchdog's 'brass neck to terrorise farmers' as talks cannot discuss prices

  • Talks agree review of beef grid, but key issues remain outstanding
  • Beef Plan threat to hold further protests
  • IFA chief wants new industry regulator
Picket: Farmers talk to a driver at Kepak in Clonee, Co Meath. PHOTO: FRANK McGRATH
Picket: Farmers talk to a driver at Kepak in Clonee, Co Meath. PHOTO: FRANK McGRATH
Demand: IFA president Joe Healy is backing Beef Plan Movement’s actions. Photo: Doug O'Connor

Margaret Donnelly and Ciaran Moran

Angry farmers have lashed out at the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), calling its rules and enforcement structure "a joke".

It comes after the commission told the Beef Plan Movement (BFM) its two-week protests outside meat plants may be unlawful and discussions about future pricing intentions is not allowed under competition law.

Talks around issues in the beef sector between the BFM and meat factories continued late into last night after both sides agreed a compromise meeting to call off the group's protests.

It is understood the discussions which also included other farming organisations and Department officials adjourned late last night were expected to agree a review of the beef grading/pricing system for cattle with progress made on market transparency and the introduction of a price index..

However, the Farming Independent understands that a number of key issues remain outstanding including factory weighing scales, written contract between farmers and factories and issues surrounding 30 month age restriction on cattle.

It is expected that the talks will re-convene on Thursday or Monday next.

The BFM said it will revert to protest if "sufficient progress is not being made".

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Michael Creed T.D., noted the progress made on talks on the beef sector which concluded in the early hours of this morning (Tuesday).

He thanked participants, and Michael Dowling for chairing the discussions, and urged continued constructive dialogue in the coming days.

Read also: Margaret Donnelly: 'How can beef prices be addressed if we can't talk about them'

In a statement to the Irish Independent, the CCPC said EU and Irish competition law prohibits businesses or associations of businesses from agreeing prices for the sale or purchase of goods or services.

"This means that discussions in relation to future pricing intentions are generally not permitted under competition law," it said.

The move by the CCPC has been condemned by farming organisations and Fianna Fáil.

Irish Cattle and Sheep Association (ICSA) president Edmond Phelan slammed the CCPC for threatening legal action in advance of talks to resolve the beef dispute.

Agricultural Minister Michael Creed has said the ‘toxicity’ between farmers and the meat industry must come to an end. Picture: Arthur Carron
Agricultural Minister Michael Creed has said the ‘toxicity’ between farmers and the meat industry must come to an end. Picture: Arthur Carron

"The CCPC has some brass neck to go terrorising a group of farmers after giving the green light to the ABP group to further consolidate its dominant position by taking over the Slaney Group in 2016.

"At that time, the effect was to consolidate 26pc of the total cattle kill under one single ownership," Mr Phelan said.

"It is time for an Oireachtas investigation into the CCPC to enquire why it is threatening powerless farmers whose position - year after year - has continuously worsened to its current desperate state.

"The CCPC was like a lamb in dealing with processors, but is acting like a wolf with a group of farmers who are on their knees."

IFA president Joe Healy said the letter sent by CCPC to farmers involved in the Beef Plan Movement shows the current rules and enforcement structure "is a complete joke".

"They need to be replaced with a new regulator who acts for all parties in the chain," he said.

The call for a new regulator was echoed by Fianna Fáil's Charlie McConalogue, who said the CCPC is "utterly useless from the point of view of farmers getting a fair deal in the food supply chain".

A new agency should be established which would implement the EU Unfair Trading Practices regulations, but it would also have a strong role in relation to policing the food supply chain to ensure farmers can also benefit from competition.

He also said the retailers should be part of the discussion as "they take the largest slice of the margin". "It's inexplicable the Government did not require their presence at the negotiations," he said. "Retailers must realise farmers are a key and critical partner in the food supply chain."

The CCPC confirmed it has engaged with Beef Plan.

It said any coordinated action by the BFM and its members (as individual undertakings), in coordinating collective action to disrupt production of meat plants or the collective withdrawal of supply of cattle, could raise competition concerns under competition law.

"The CCPC is concerned that the Beef Plan Movement's plans and actions to organise what appears to be a collective boycott by beef farmers of beef plants, with the intention to force an increase in the price of beef, raises competition concerns," it said.

Irish Independent