16 March 2001

Fair prices for beef not easy to come by

By Robert Forster

Chief executive of the

National Beef Association

FINISHERS face a bitter slog to secure fair prices for their cattle during the current foot-and-mouth outbreak. Their trump card is that the beef they produce is safer and better quality than any import – including Irish.

But a group of frontline multiples, who have for years cultivated partnerships through producer clubs and insisted their customers must be supplied with the safest and the best beef through farm assurance, have taken advantage of the foot-and-mouth crisis to import vast quantities of unmonitored beef from the Republic of Ireland instead.

So great is their enthusiasm that Irish slaughterers posted a record kill during the week that foot-and-mouth related restrictions shut down domestic abattoirs. Last week this beef was moved through the equally busy packing rooms of their English suppliers – many of them Irish owned.

This explains the anger of producers, mostly in England, supplying abattoirs dedicated to mainstream supermarkets who were offered only 160p/kg dw for standard quality animals.

Particularly, when compared with 171p/kg dw the day before the shut down and the 180p/kg dw plus paid by most Scottish abattoirs and medium-range slaughterers mainly in the north of England.

Many big slaughterers have helped to make sure British cattle are being sold onto a buyers market. Their enthusiasm for domestic beef is dampened because their packing rooms are full of cheaper imports and they have confirmed they are reluctant to jeopardise their cutting facilities by killing domestic cattle – even though MAFF has said that if a foot-and-mouth case is suspected in lairage, cutting facilities will only be shut down for 24 hours.

Doublespeak is being used to talk the market down, too. Many abattoirs justify a drop of 11p/kg dw on pre-foot-and-mouth prices by claiming that the new anti-foot-and-mouth expense imposed on them is the equivalent of 10p/kg dw, or £30 an animal when the real cost is much less than 5p/kg dw.

And although supermarkets report they have instructed their suppliers to pay the stand-on pre-foot-and-mouth price of 171p/kg dw, it is obvious their cattle are being purchased for significantly less.

Beef finishers may be bound for months by licensed delivery and infected area restrictions, but must fight back. Those who can should use experienced auction markets to broker better prices – whether they are delivering direct, or using holding centres for smaller loads as soon as they are approved.

Those who cant, and are being insulted with derisory prices, should ring the National Beef Association (01434-682267) and pass on the name of the company that is ripping them off, which will in turn be given to MAFF.

The multiples are the key. They must be shown, by government intervention if necessary, that they cannot demand farm-assured, club-produced, home-reared beef one minute and drop it like a stone the next.

And consumers themselves must be told by every means at our disposal that because British beef is safer than any other, the supermarkets that prefer to offer imports are not only neglecting their safety concerns, but also selling second best.

BEEF PRICES

&#8226 Buyers market.

&#8226 Farmers sell together.

&#8226 Supermarkets must pay for quality.