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Explainer: Why are farmers so angry about the price of beef right now?

Farmers had been protesting over low beef prices for almost a fortnight.

Beef farmers protesting outside Kepak in Clonee, Co Meath.
Beef farmers protesting outside Kepak in Clonee, Co Meath.
Image: Garreth MacNamee

BEEF FARMERS HAVE been protesting outside meat factories around the country for almost a fortnight over low stock prices.

Late last night, however, there was a minor breakthrough with Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed saying all sides had agreed to sit down for talks – that looked like a distant prospect just hour earlier with meat factories talking about legal action and farmers promising to continue demonstrating ‘for as long as it takes’. 

But why were they protesting? 

Essentially, the group wants more money for the beef they are selling to factories before it ends up on shop shelves. They say retailers should take more responsibility for low beef prices at the moment. 

Beef Plan was set up by a group of farmers who wanted to improve their profits that they say have been “eaten into” by processing factories and retailers. It is an independent organisation that planned the recent protests around the country outside meat processing factories.

The demonstrations have mainly been planned through WhatsApp and Facebook groups. 

Their aims centre around:

  • Regaining control of an animal from birth to when it is slaughtered.
  • Implementing a minimum cost of production, plus a margin.
  • Regaining respect within the beef industry. 

Vice-chairman of Beef Plan Hugh Doyle said that the main demand at the moment is for retailers to take more responsibility for the payment farmers receive for their beef. 

“The process of beef goes from primary producers – the farmers – into the factories and then onto the retailers,” Doyle told TheJournal.ie.

“However, the farmer has no power in this situation… The person that takes 100% of the risk in that situation is the primary producer.”

The Irish Farmers Association (IFA) was not involved in the protests, but IFA president Joe Healy said that a solution to the protests “is very clearly needed now”, speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland on Friday.

He asked the Meat Industry Ireland to not take legal action against Beef Plan.

This will not be solved in the High Courts. 

On Friday, it was reported that a protest in Charleville was ceased after a small number of demonstrators would not “obey the rules and guidelines”, according to a spokesperson for the Beef Plan. 

How are beef prices set? 

Beef prices are set through supply and demand, much like any other product. People who want to sell cattle can contact a number of meat factories to get quotes for particular breeds. They agree to sell to the one with the best price. 

These prices are set by the factories. Although individual processing plants have control over their prices, they generally don’t vary widely between different businesses. 

If the factory is looking for cattle, they might contact a farmer who they know has cattle ready and quote them a price for these animals. This price would be based in part on the price the retailer or retailers they work with has said they will pay. 

This leaves uncertainty for beef farmers as they can’t rely on receiving a certain amount of money for their cattle due to volatility in the market. 

Beef Plan want retailers to take responsibility, but they are protesting outside the meat processing factories as they are ultimately the ones who set the price for farmers. 

How low are prices at the moment compared to last year?

The Department of Agriculture publishes weekly meat market reports on the price of beef, poultry, sheepmeat and pigmeat. 

The report outlines the average price paid for animals in 24 of the meat factories approved by the Department of Agriculture in Ireland. 

Beef prices are down 45 cent per kilogram from last year, according to the IFA.

The current steer base price for beef is €3.45 per kilogram

EU beef prices are down 6% on last year, according to the IFA. 

Beef prices are down considerably from this time last year, according to Bord Bia. The price per kilogram of different breeds of cattle has reduced from between 2.9% and 15.4% between 2018 and 2019. 

For consumers at the moment, Irish sirloin steak is priced from €9.75 per kilogram in Tesco.

In Supervalu, the same cut is priced from €11.01 per kilogram

The Beef Plan says that if the consumer spends €10 on beef, the retailer gets €5.10, the factory gets €2.90 and the farmer gets €2. 

IMG_1850 Claims from Beef Plan about beef prices. Source: Garreth MacNamee

What’s the update on the farmer protests?

Beef farmers had been protesting for nearly two weeks before the announcement last night that the protests were suspended. 

Multiple protests took place in 22 meat processing sites across the country. 

TheJournal.ie visited one protest outside the Kepak meat factory in Clonee, Co Meath on Thursday. 

One protester called Richard Flynn said many Irish beef farmers work extra jobs to supplement their income. 

“We’re getting a lot more support now – people are starting to back what we’re at. We don’t want to cause any disruption but we also have to get our voices heard,” Flynn said. 

“The crippling of the beef prices to the livelihoods of farmers is what we class as rural Ireland being dismantled.”

IMG_1847 Beef protester Richard Flynn in Co Meath on Thursday. Source: Garreth MacNamee

Meat Industry Ireland, the organisation representing the meat processing sector in Ireland, announced that it would be seeking legal remedy against the Beef Plan in a statement on Thursday.

It said this was “in an effort” to prevent further damage to the beef industry. Since the protests began, 14 plants have temporarily closed down and more than 150 workers at a plant in Co Kilkenny have reportedly been temporarily laid off. 

At the last major beef farmer protest in 2000, the High Court imposed a £500,000 penalty per day if the IFA-led blockade remained in place. 

Can Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed intervene?

Earlier this week, a spokesperson for Michael Creed said that the minister cannot legally intervene in determining the price of beef or any other commodity.

The Department of Agriculture can also not directly intervene in this process. 

“It is not the DAFM’s (Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine) role to comment on commercial decisions taken by private entities in an open market,” the spokesperson said.  

What is going to happen next? 

Minister Creed has invited Beef Plan to enter in talks and these are due to start on Monday. 

Creed put down a proviso that there would only be talks under the pre-condition that protests stop beforehand. 

He spoke to Cork C103 radio station on Thursday and said this was a “difficult situation for everybody”. 

“Beef farmers, it’s not their natural habitat to be picketing outside a beef processing plant,” Creed told C103. 

“I would urge the beef plan movement to come off the picket line now. Let’s sit down around the table.

“I’ve seen the agenda that they have. I think collectively we can make progress on those issues, so I would say they have made their point and they have made it very effectively.” 

A €100 million Brexit fund for beef farmers was announced on 29 July by Creed. This is aimed at countering difficulties farmers are facing from market volatility and uncertainty. 

Under this scheme, farmers would receive certain payments for animals slaughtered between September 2018 and May 2019.   

Vice-chairman of Beef Plan Hugh Doyle said the group will continue in their fight to “get our self-respect back”. 

“We don’t feature as far as the retailer and meat factories are concerned,” he said. 

“We are at the stage where we have nothing left to lose, our businesses are already basically gone.” 

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