11 February 2000

Farmer power paying dividends

By Anthony Garvey

PROVING that farmer power really can work, Irish farmers have chalked up another gain from their victory in the recent 13-day blockade of the countrys 40-plus meat plants.

This week sees the publication of the first detailed table of the prices being paid by processors.

The table, to be published weekly by the Department of Agriculture, is intended to provide greater price transparency for producers and counter the widespread suspicion that plants have been operating as a cartel.

It was that suspicion which fuelled the recent successful battle by the Irish Farmers Association for a minimum Irish 90p/lb (154p/kg) deadweight price, some 6p-8p above what was being paid.

This weeks table reflects the new terms, with 90p/lb for ordinary Grade O animals, 92-94p for better type animals in the R Grade and 94-96p for top quality U Grade cattle. According to IFA president Tom Parlon, the overall agreement, which allows for local plant bargaining, will mean an extra £40-50 a head for producers.

Another key element of the new "price transparency" will be delivered shortly, with the report of a three-man investigative committee appointed by government at the height of the blockade. Its task is to examine the cartel and price-fixing allegations made against the processors, and to identify the reasons for the huge gap between retail beef prices and ex-farm values.

Meanwhile, Agriculture Minister Joe Walsh has been travelling to Italy, France and Holland to reassure Irish beef buyers about supplies. But the Italians, who take £70m of Irish beef annually, plus £20m worth of live cattle, adopted a hard line, warning that they are not prepared to pay higher prices because of the increases conceded by the meat plants. If importers elsewhere follow suit, it could put the new agreed prices under strain.

The UK remains the biggest market for Irish beef, taking some 95,000 tonnes last year, a 10,000t increase on 1998. But because some of the main Irish processors also operate in the UK, the blockade caused much less market disruption there than on the Continent, and no immediate ministerial visits are planned. &#42