Strong criticism of ‘minimalist approach’ adopted in tackling unfair trading practices

Deputy Matt Carthy has strongly criticised the adoption of a “minimalist approach” in tackling unfair trading practices in the agriculture sector.

The Sinn Féin spokesperson on agriculture said that Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue has “shown no signs that he is willing to challenge the dominance of processors and retailers who drive down the margins paid to primary producers”.

Speaking in the Dáil this week, the minister said that the EU’s unfair trading practices directive must be transposed into Irish law by May 1, with efforts currently underway to establish a National Food Ombudsman authority to enforce this directive.

Directive (EU) No. 2019/633 on unfair trading practices in business-to-business relationships in the agricultural and food supply chain (UTP Directive) is the directive in question.

“While an MEP, I argued that the UTP Directive did not go far enough to rebalance the scales for primary producers in the market chain and I warned that governments could adopt a minimalist approach, which would not deliver for family farmers,” the deputy said.

“It is now clear that [the] Irish government intends to pursue this minimalist approach. Minister McConologue plans to implement the UTP Directive via statutory instrument rather than primary legislation.

This will undoubtedly limit the scope of the directive, ensure that there are no additional unfair trading practice restrictions and that the ability for engagement by opposition parties and farm organisations will be reduced.

“There is almost universal acceptance that there is a need for a strong legislative protection in the market chain for our farmers, particularly in the beef sector. The EU directive does not go far enough but it gives scope to national governments to restrict further practices.”

‘Will not inspire much confidence’

The deputy is also concerned that there is no indication given that this additional scope will be used to “ban below-cost selling of food by retailers or prevent the use of arbitrary rules such as the four-movement and 30-month rules by factories”.

“The government [has] also refused to establish a meat industry regulator, instead, committing to a food ombudsman,” deputy Carthy continued.

In Budget 2021, the minister celebrated securing funding for the ombudsman – what has changed since then?

“On top of the profound new challenges that Covid-19 and Brexit have presented, the position of farmers is already perilous due to the ongoing dominance of the meat factories and large retailers. This dominance needs to be tackled and we need a Minister for Agriculture who is willing to do that.

“While I am sceptical of the impact that a food ombudsman can deliver for farmers, Minister McConalogue insinuates that it will be a panacea. He therefore must outline the clear timeframe for its establishment and also the powers it will be given.

“The minimalist approach adopted in respect of the UTP Directive will not inspire much confidence, unfortunately.”