COMMENT: Not that long ago the attainment of Farm Quality Assurance status was sufficient, for the most part, to ensure that beef farmers secured the optimal returns available from the market.

That was then: now the landscape that is beef production in Northern Ireland has been turned on its head with factors such age at slaughter, the non-acceptability of young bulls, residency issues, carcase weight and breed type now amongst the many boxes that beef finishers must tick before they would even consider sending an animal to a meat plant.

In truth, the beef industry in Northern Ireland is in a state of flux with many farmers totally confused regarding the criteria they must meet to secure the best possible price for their cattle. Given these circumstances, surely there is now every good reason for Northern Ireland Meat Exporters Association to host a series of province-wide road shows to explain in detail what is ‘in’ or ‘out of spec’ when it comes to selling beef cattle in Northern Ireland. And that’s only part of the challenge confronting beef farmers at the present time

But that’s far from the end of the story. ABP has recently circulated its suppliers with ‘Producer Agreement’ forms for 2014. The documentation to be completed extends to eight pages: it’s akin to a tax return form with questions contained therein that reflect on every aspect of the feeding and management practises carried out on most beef and sheep farms.

The final section of the form comes under the heading ‘Declaration’ with the following words included: “All of the information provided is accurate to the best of my knowledge. I have read and fully understand ABP UK’s terms and conditions and agree to abide by them.”

At this stage, I should point out that there are 20 criteria listed within ABP’s ‘terms and conditions’. These are included with the Producer Group Agreement forms for 2014.

This is all pretty serious stuff. Other meat plants may well be going down the same road. And, no doubt, they can justify this approach by saying that it’s what the supermarkets want. To me it smacks totally of a ‘Big Brother’ approach.

The big guys (the retailers and supermarkets) are striving to secure total control over the small fella (the farmer). Meanwhile, the small fella is politely told to Foxtrot Oscar if he ever dares ask about the price he receives for his cattle or why the ‘in spec’ criteria agreed for beef are changed at very short notice.

It really is time for NIMEA to take the initiative and explain what’s going on and, moreover, let farmers know about further changes that might be coming down the track – in good time!