Minister green lights ‘Irish Beef’ label just as southern beef farmers lunge into crisis…

Unfortunate timing for the Agriculture Minister’s new labelling ‘concession’ for so-called ‘nomadic beef’. In Michelle O’Neill’s own terms, here’s the ‘problem’…

I am of the strong view that the term ‘nomad cattle’ has no place on this island and following discussions with industry stakeholders and Minister Coveney in the south, I am hopeful that this issue can be resolved.

“This has been a problem for some time because cattle imported from the south and slaughtered in the north cannot be labelled with a single country of origin. Beef from these animals has a lower market value than cattle which are born, reared and slaughtered here, due to the reluctance of retailers to source dual origin cattle.”

The Minister added: “The ability to label beef derived from such cattle as “Irish” will hopefully open new market opportunities with British retailers for local processors. It should also assist the long standing tradition of trading cattle across the island of Ireland, particularly store cattle coming from the west of Ireland for finishing and slaughter in the north.”

So why’s it bad timing? Well, two reasons. Meat which is sourced across two separate regulatory regimes is really not popular with the big retailers. No matter what’s called, if it is to be sold within the EU it will still be labelled nomadic, which consumers mistrust.

Eh, what’s this nomadic thing then? That’s where beef imported from the south and slaughtered in in Northern Ireland cannot be labelled with a single country of origin. As this is the result of EU wide regulation Ms O’Neill’s scheme won’t change that in primary beef markets. Farming Life explains:

Store cattle imported from the south for finishing and slaughter in the north will be labelled “Born in Ireland; Reared in Ireland/UK; Slaughtered in UK”. Beef from finished cattle imported for immediate slaughter must be labelled “Born in Ireland; Reared in Ireland; Slaughtered in UK”.

And the other reason that this is poor timing? In fact, Northern Irish beef farmers have done rather well out of the horse meat crisis. Prices are rising, and in the rest of the UK they are beginning to stablise. In the Republic they are massively falling.

So what’s this Irish label thing about then? Well, it’s about marketing really. There are several references in the press to ‘hopefully opening new markets for local processors’. Those markets are necessarily outside the EU, because inside there is no way to conceal the nomadic status.

And where’s all this come from? Well, now there is a genuine crisis for beef farmers in the south. The crunch came as export markets changed the conditions under which they would buy Irish beef. As George Lee notes “British retailers are increasing their preference for British beef and changing the specifications of the beef they are willing to buy”.

Last night Padraig Browne of Dunbia told farmers that some British retailers are “already imposing an even lower age limit for bull beef than the 16-month limit imposed last October with some imposing 14-month or 12-month limits”, whilst..

IFA President Eddie Downey said that a 14-month age limit for bull beef would be nonsense. He said no Irish farmer could have a grass-fed animal ready by that age. However, Mr Browne said it is already being done in the UK.

Since the UK (including NI) represents 53% of Republic’s export market for beef, you can see the scale of the problem. Minister Coveney has only just got access to the US and China after the BSE crisis. Ms O’Neill has opened an agreement with S Africa, which would allow the sale of nomadic beef as Irish (possibly worth £5-10 million).

Right now, Northern Irish farmers are insulated from the troubles of their southern colleagues because northern beef is clearly labelled as produced in the UK and in consequence are seeing their prices rise.

In actual fact in the short term there is very little the northern Minister can do to aid this southern crisis. This ‘voluntary scheme’ (which few northern producer are likely to take take up), has the distinct look and feel of someone in government trying to look busy by looking annoyed and shuffling some paper clips.

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