Comment: Grants should be withheld until meat plants play ball

This week will see the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney host round table talks in Dublin Castle to discuss the current crisis within the beef industry. But, even before this gathering takes place, IFA President Eddie Downey will be in Belfast tomorrow to meet the North’s Farm Minster Michelle O’Neill. From what can be gathered the issue of ‘nomad cattle’ will be the main item on the agenda.

I have been shocked by the lack of public comment made by Minister O’Neill on this issue. Given her Sinn Féin background, one might have thought that she would jump at the opportunity to push forward on an issue that has true, ‘all-island’ traction. But let’s see what tomorrow brings.

As far as I am aware there is no legislative reason for the meat plants – most of whom own processing facilities in both jurisdictions – to flag up the cross border movement of store cattle in such a negative way at the present time.

As all the farm lobby organisations have already pointed out, the game afoot seems to be some form of deal between the plants and the UK supermarkets to reduce the number of buying and selling options open to livestock farmers. And, in such circumstances, the end result will be enhanced pressure on farmers to accept lower prices.

In the first instance, Michelle O’Neill should come out tomorrow and tell the plants that the issue of nomad cattle is to be removed from their agenda with immediate effect. This stance must be backed up by Simon Coveney, following his get-together with all the stakeholder groups on Thursday.

Step Two in the process should be for both the Ministers to tell the meat processers that grant aid – marketing and capital development – will be put on hold until they decide to follow more realistic and transparent policies, where farmer suppliers are concerned.

Both ministers, Michelle O’Neill and Simon Coveney, should also tell the supermarkets that it is for individual governments to decide what animal welfare standards will be implemented within their respective jurisdictions.

The ‘four residence’ issue, that now features so prominently within the current cattle specification criteria, has its origins in the push made by supermarkets to – supposedly – improve animal welfare standards. What nonsense! The current farm quality assurance criteria plus the veterinary inspection procedures that now operate at every meat plant give consumers all the animal welfare they cover they need, where the management and slaughter of cattle are concerned.

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