The long process of appointing an Agri Food Regulator took another step forward this week with Minister McConalogue bringing a memo to cabinet with the final draft of the bill.

The fact that the office will now be called the Agri Food Regulator as opposed to the proposed Office for Fairness and Transparency and penalties are increased from maximum fines of €500,000 to €10m reflect amendments proposed by the Dáil committee.

The legislation is expected to be in place in the first quarter of 2023 and the office will then take over the functions of the Unfair Trading Practices (UTP) Enforcement Authority, which was established on an interim basis to comply with EU legislation on the enforcement of unfair trading practices.

Limited scope

Having a regulator in place on a statutory basis can do no harm in terms of bringing more fairness and transparency to the supply chain but it won’t solve the biggest problem, which is the issue of farmer confidence in their relationship with factories. This is particularly applicable to the beef sector.

The regulator will have the authority to deal with payment times and contracts being honoured which will be of benefit to smaller processors in the food chain dealing with large retail or food service customers.

Payment terms and contracts aren’t particularly an issue except for the dwindling number of vegetable growers who sell direct to supermarkets.

Similarly, liquid milk producers might ask for their supply contracts to be looked at.

While the regulator is tasked with publishing enhanced market data, it will not initiate investigation into suspected cartel-type behaviour or price fixing by companies buying from farmers.

This will continue to be part of the remit of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC), though the regulator can ask the CCPC to launch an investigation if it finds suspicious activity in this respect.

Will the regulator have teeth?

The short answer is, yes, but for a limited purpose. UTP regulations are narrow and rarely a matter of dispute between farmers and factories though more of an issue between smaller processors and large retail or food service customers.

However, if a small artisan producer isn’t being paid within the contracted period then the regulator will have the teeth to make it happen. The ambition will be to resolve disputes but there is recourse to the courts and in the most extreme cases fines of up to €10m will be possible. This is an increase from the original maximum of €500,000 and a recommendation from the agriculture committee.

What will be of most interest to farmers is what the regulator won’t be able to do.

They will not be able to explain why prices paid to farmers by factories are poor and while any more market information is always welcome, it will never solve the problem of poor prices.

In any case, Bord Bia is now an excellent source of market information especially the graph that is published in the Irish Farmers Journal every week, showing how Irish factory prices benchmark against those paid in our main beef export market.

The regulator also won’t be able to shed any light on what happens beyond the factory gate and there will be no information on factory costs or profitability, the biggest obstacle in developing farmer confidence in factory fairness.

It would be easy to dismiss the regulator appointment as too little too late.

However, it is better to look at it as something being put in place where there was nothing before and there is no reason why the regulator’s office cannot develop further once established.

Its success will depend on the calibre of people appointed and it will also need active engagement by farmers to test the extent to which it is fit for purpose and delivers as intended.

Clearly, the minister is in a hurry with this and the beef PGI application as there is a cabinet reshuffle next month. Both have the potential to be legacy features if they are a success, and no doubt the minister will want to be associated even if he is moved on to another role

  • Publish additional price and market data.
  • Enforce unfair trading practices legislation.
  • Investigate suspected breaches and refer cases to DPP.
  • Penalties up to €10m fine for breaches of UTP.
  • €4m budget for office.
  • If non-compliance with competition law is suspected, regulator can alert CCPC.