An ombudsman for the food industry was part of the Programme for Government agreed back in 2020. That title has been dropped in favour of regulator as the legislation makes its way through the Dáil but while titles are symbolic, it is what the office does that will be the real issue for farmers.
The regulator when appointed will take over enforcement of the limited EU unfair trading practices legislation.
This is more small business than farmer facing but, what farmers will really look for is that the office uses powers to investigate what goes on in the chain from the time livestock are dropped off in a factory lairage until the product re-emerges on a supermarket shelf or a restaurant menu.
There currently is an abundance of published information on livestock prices and extensive monitoring of consumer retail and food service prices. There is no meaningful information on wholesale prices or stocks of product in the supply chain, key elements in determining what factories decide to pay to farmers. It is vital that the regulator has access to all unpublished information about the meat industry to determine if the prices returned to farmers properly reflect the market value.
Farmers in the US already have this with the publication of sales volumes and prices as well as stocks by the USDA based on information the processing industry is required to report on a twice daily basis. The other key distinction with the US is that most of the major companies there publish annual accounts.
The astronomical factory profits there in late 2021 alongside rising consumer inflation led the Biden administration to set up a $1bn fund to encourage the establishment of more independent processors to compete alongside the big four who have 85% of beef and pigmeat processing between them.
Not only do Irish farmers not have access to US levels of information on factory sales and stocks, there is little information on factory profitability in Ireland as most of the privately owned processing industry doesn’t publish annual accounts.
Against this backdrop, farmers will be watching to see if the regulator, when appointed, really has the teeth to get into what goes on in the supply chain between the farm gate and supermarket shelf. If they can demonstrate that they have the information to make a judgment on factory performance relative to what farmers are paid for stock, the regulator will help build farmer confidence in the supply chain.
On the other hand, if they don’t have the extensive powers required or are slow to use them, then the office of regulator will fail to deliver what it is intended to do.
Farmers will be hoping this isn’t the case and that the regulator becomes their eyes and ears in the darker corners of the supply chain.