The impending National Food Ombudsman will operate “within existing failing frameworks”, according to Cork South-West TD Holly Cairns.

There have been numerous calls for a beef regulator “with teeth”, along with concerns by many that the Food Ombudsman will not give enough sectoral focus to address issues in the beef industry.

Yesterday (Wednesday, May 26), deputy Carol Nolan and her independent rural TD colleagues brought forward the Independent Beef Regulator private members motion.

The motion seeks for the government to “accept that existing regulatory and competition protections have proven themselves to be manifestly inadequate”, among other things.

Also yesterday, the public consultation on the primary legislation needed to establish a new Office of a National Food Ombudsman or regulator closed.

Moves for greater transparency being met by farmers

Speaking in the Dáil, Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns asked: 30 years after the beef tribunal, “what has changed?”.

“We still have a system that makes a small few people incredibly wealthy at the expense of farmers,” deputy Cairns said.

“The system is still designed to work for the beef barons while small farms fade away and young farmers have no choice but to pursue other careers but the government is not addressing that.

“The Beef [Market] Taskforce, which is the response of the government to the protests, is rightly criticised for its lack of progress and slow pace. The issues affecting small farmers are immediate but the solutions are always somewhere in the distant future.

“Moves for greater transparency are being met by farmers but practices within factories remain obscure. It is worth noting that it was agreed on the establishment of the taskforce that a regulator would be part of the discussion but it is yet to get on the agenda.”

Food Ombudsman ‘unlikely to adequately deal with issues’

The deputy said that the scale of the beef sector and its “structural inequalities mean that the proposed National Food Ombudsman will be unlikely to adequately deal with the issues”.

“The government has to recognise it. It has to establish an independent beef regulator with statutory powers to oversee and, crucially, to intervene in the sector. Anything less will fail another generation of farmers.

“An ombudsman operates within existing frameworks. In this scenario, it will be operating within existing failing frameworks.

“Although it is vital work, the sector needs a regulator, an independent office that can introduce sectoral codes of conduct and enforce legislation.

“This regulator needs to be producer-focused. Primary producers and small retailers can see and feel the absence of regulation to protect them.

“In the meantime, current regulating authorities could have greater oversight of the sector.”

‘No dignity or respect in this industry’

Independent TD Michael Fitzmaurice added that anyone who thinks an ombudsman will solve anything is “delusional”.

Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath said that “there is no dignity or respect in this industry for the farmers, producers or workers”.

He said the government “will happily continue to let things proceed so badly or it will set up an ombudsman”.

“We have ombudsmen for everything. They are toothless, useless and fruitless,” the deputy claimed.

‘Be careful what they wish for’

However, independent TD Matt Shanahan said that “rather than welcoming the appointment of a regulator”, he would welcome the appointment of a food ombudsman.

“This was highlighted by the Beef Taskforce. This could do a lot to address transparency,” he said.

“Farmers need to be careful about what they wish for in terms of a regulator. There could be further regulation at the primary food production end and that might not be what people need.

“Therefore, there needs to be transparency in retailing. I have a particular problem with below-cost selling and loss-leading, which is a significant factor in Irish multiples’ sales.

“I said in the house some weeks ago that a pound of frozen pizza sometimes sells in supermarkets for more than the price of choice cuts of Irish beef. That is a significant regret for everybody in the house.”

Food Ombudsman has no authority to determine commodity prices

Minister of State Martin Heydon drew attention “to the fact that Ireland is one of the first of the EU member states to transpose the UTP [Unfair Trading Practices] directive into national legislation”.

“The establishment of this [ombudsman] office is what the government has committed to delivering. It will be delivered in a way that optimises its usefulness to supply chain actors and consumers. However, the office will not have the authority to determine commodity prices,” the minister said.

“Neither the minister nor the department has or can have a role in determining price for any commodity. We are not in a position to set up any entity which will run contrary to existing competition law.”