The office of the Agri-Food Regulator has now been in place for just over 100 days.

It has taken over responsibility for enforcement of unfair trading practices (UTP) legislation and also has the brief of providing information on the agri-food supply chain and promoting fairness and transparency along the supply chain.

It has a seven-person board, plus former IFA president Joe Healy as chair, to give strategic direction and an executive team led by CEO Niamh Lenehan.

They will produce an annual report for the minister with the first one due by the end of the first year.

The Irish Farmers Journal spoke to Niamh Lenehan about how the Agri-Food Regulator will operate and what farmers can expect. In the context of the first 100 days, she said that as well as getting the infrastructure in place, “we’ve very much hit the ground running with its stakeholder engagement, having had around 50 meetings with major players across different sectors so far, with a few more still to come”.

Unfair trading practices

Dealing with the enforcement of UTP legislation is relatively straightforward in that the prohibited practices are clearly in legislation.

The regulator will respond to complaints and can also initiate investigations without formal complaints.

When asked about how to make a complaint, Lenehan explained that anyone who suspects a UTP has taken place “can contact us by phone, email or post and provide whatever information and evidence that they have”.

She also said that the office would engage informally where someone wasn’t sure if an action qualified as a breach or not.

She also pointed out that a supplier would not have to reveal their identity to make a complaint, or if a complaint was brought on their behalf by a representative organisation.

However, if a finding was made, then identity would have to be revealed when it reached the point of a compliance notice or remedy being issued.

There have been no new complaints made about UTPs in the first 100 days of the Agri-Food Regulator but it has inherited an investigation that was transferred from the interim authority. As the panel on the facing page shows, the list of prohibited UTPs is very specific and quite limited and some practices can be waived with suppliers’ agreement.

Most relate to events in the supply chain beyond the farm gate and, while price may be of huge concern for farmers, Lenehan was clear: “We are not involved in setting a price or setting what a fair price is”, adding: “Where we are involved is in putting the information out there about how the agri-food supply chain is working and obviously ensuring that there is no breach of the unfair trading practices or enforcing that, if there are.”

Transparency journey

It is clear that bringing transparency to the supply chain beyond the farm gate will be dependent on securing co-operation from processors as on several occasions, Lenehan referred to “seeking information” from processors.

She said that “it’s a partnership approach with the sectors and we are starting out on this journey and it is indeed a transparency journey”.

This will require the Agri-Food Regulator’s office building a relationship and securing the confidence of the different sectors that it will require information from to create transparency.

As Lenehan explained: “I have been saying to businesses, ‘well, look, we wouldn’t be here if it was considered that there was enough transparency with the information that’s already out there’.”

As to how this would work, she said that there is “a strategic relationship to be built up with businesses all along the food chain and there’s [the] infrastructure to be put in place” and this has been the focus of the first 100 days.

Data access

Getting access to additional, unpublished data is sensitive with industry and Lenehan explained that the office would be “working with them in terms of building the infrastructure here that will allow them to supply with confidence”.

When the Irish Farmers Journal put it to her that she wasn’t in a strong position in having to seek information as opposed to being able to demand it, Lenehan pushed back strongly.

She emphasised the partnership approach that she was building and in her dealings with industry she has been clear in saying: “I don’t want to be wasting your time and I am certainly not going to be wasting my time either.”

The Irish Farmers Journal referred to the level of transparency available to US farmers with data published by the USDA. While Lenehan said that she “wouldn’t pretend to be an expert on the US system, my understanding is that it is based on regulation and legislation and it’s a very different scenario”.

She also referred to enhancing accessibility to existing information that is already published and repeated her confidence in the partnership approach with the industry delivering enhanced transparency. When asked what future success would look like for the Agri-Food Regulator, Lenehan said: “We are not involved in dictating or deciding or even talking about a price for farmers. Our job is to provide information and put it out there.”

She said that the organisation’s brief “is to promote fairness and transparency in the agri-food supply chain” and her ambition for five years from now is that “this is an organisation that made a difference in terms of transparency”.

  • Office of Agri-Food Regulator established in December 2023.
  • Enforces UTP legislation.
  • Promotes fairness and transparency in supply chain.
  • Building partnerships to deliver this.
  • Will revise presentation of existing data and generate additional data.
  • Doesn’t have legislative base of a model similar to US.
  • Comment: setting up Agri-Food Regulator was the easy part

    The Minister for Agriculture described the establishment of the Agri-Food Regulator’s office as a “major landmark for the Irish agri-food sector.”

    It puts something in place where there was nothing and it has a strong legislative base on UTPs. However, in relation to transparency, the legislation is limited to giving the regulator the power to seek information.

    Despite this, it can still make an impact.

    It is an opportunity for the privately owned parts of the agri-food processing sector to demonstrate through provision of information for aggregated use, that huge profits aren’t made at farmers’ expense between the farm gate and retail shelf.

    The board benefits from members having considerable knowledge of farming and the agri-food industry. A number of them have the experience of leading roles in farm organisations, and they in particular will understand what farmers expect from the office of the Agri-Food Regulator in relation to transparency.

    On the Agri-Food Regulator board (standing from left): Margaret Dineen, Elaine Donohue, Angus Woods and Paul Brophy. Seated left to right: John Comer, Karen Brosnan, Joe Healy and Grace McCullen

    What are the unfair trading practices?

    There are 10 trading practices that are completely prohibited by the UTP legislation:

  • Paying later than 30 days for perishable agricultural and food products.
  • Paying later than 60 days for other agricultural and food products.
  • Short-notice cancellations of perishable agricultural and food products.
  • Unilateral contract changes by the buyer.
  • Payment not related to a specific transaction.
  • Risk of loss and deterioration transferred to the supplier.
  • Refusal of written confirmation of a supply agreement by the buyer, despite request of the supplier.
  • Misuse of trade secrets by the buyer.
  • Commercial retaliation by the buyer.
  • Transferring the costs of examining customer complaints to the supplier.
  • There are a further six practices that are prohibited unless there is an agreement in place between the supplier and buyer in advance of the transaction:

  • Buyer returning unsold products to the supplier without paying for those unsold products or for disposal of those products, or both.
  • Payment by the supplier for stocking, display or listing of products or of making such products available on the market.
  • Requiring the supplier to bear all or part of the cost of any discounts on products sold by the buyer as part of a promotion.
  • Payment by the supplier for advertising.
  • Payment by the supplier for marketing.
  • Payment by the supplier for staff for fitting out premises used for the sale of the supplier’s products.
  • Who’s who on the Agri-Food Regulator board?

    The board for the office of the Agri-food Regulator is responsible for “decisions about the office’s policies and strategic approach to key functions and is appointed by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

    It has a chair and seven other members, with at least “appearing to the minister to be primary producers”.

    The current board has strong farmer participation.

  • Chair Joe Healy is a dairy farmer from Co Galway and has served as president of the IFA and, before that, Macra.
  • John Comer is a Co Mayo dairy farmer and he served as president of ICMSA.
  • Angus Woods is a beef, sheep, and tillage farmer and is a past chair of the IFA national livestock committee.
  • Karen Brosnan is a management consultant in the agri-food sector, specialising in strategy, governance and leadership.
  • Elaine Donohue is from a farming background and works at the helm of Bia Innovator Campus.
  • Paul Brophy is a primary producer in the horticulture sector and currently chairs Unigreen, a producer organisation of five vegetable producers. He is also a past chair of the IFA horticulture committee.
  • Grace McCullen is from a farming background in Co Meath and is director of food systems with Farrelly & Mitchell, agri-food consultants.