Accountability is needed on beef specifications, says Union

Picture: Cliff Donaldson
Picture: Cliff Donaldson

Following last week’s EFRA Committee discussion on the beef payment grid and specifications, UFU deputy president, Victor Chestnutt said that retailers, food service companies and processors must be held accountable for their actions on beef specifications.

He added that more constructive solutions are required which ensure that farmers are not disadvantaged in the supply chain.

Commenting Mr Chestnutt said: “We welcome the interest the EFRA committee at Westminster has taken in changes to cattle specifications and the notice periods traditionally given to farmers. This is an area which has caused great financial and practical difficulties for farmers in Northern Ireland.”

He added that often these changes see the value of cattle suddenly deemed out of spec steeply depreciate where “harsh financial penalties” are applied, leaving farmers to carry the cost.

“From experience we know that it is processors who are responsible for changing the specification for farmers and for putting in place the penalties. However major companies in retail and food service must also be held accountable as they dictate the changes to the rest of the supply chain,” said Mr Chestnutt.

“We believe it is unacceptable that swift changes in specification creates financial hardship for farmers but it also disappoints me that to date processors have not felt comfortable enough to challenge the introduction of specifications which they know will have a negative impact on the beef industry,” said Mr Chestnutt, he continued: “I can only assume this is because they fear losing business and that the cost of not complying is too great a risk, but to me this is a perfect example of a dysfunctional supply chain and a set of circumstances which requires big changes.

“Farmers are passionate about producing the end product that the consumer will want to buy and enjoy, but the supply chain needs to recognise that from the day a bull is put in with a cow to the day that their offspring is slaughtered is a long term process,” said Mr Chestnutt.

Differing farm production systems means this could take “in the region of three years to produce a prime animal”, so if the specification changes within a number of weeks this is clearly not enough time for farmers to adjust.

“I would strongly encourage the EFRA committee to challenge retailers, food service companies and processors on short notice periods and also on how specifications are devised. Specifications are supposed to reflect what consumers want, but I doubt consumers would be happy if they knew that the dominant retailers, food service companies and processors were financially penalising farmers to achieve this.”

Concluding Mr Chestnutt said: “Farmers are the first link in our supply chain but are the last to be consulted on specification changes, therefore we need a process which sees farmer involvement in discussions around these changes and one which will deliver the long term notice that our farmers really need.”