Agri-Food Regulator could be a ‘toothless tiger’ – McNamara

Independent TD Michael McNamara has expressed concern the Government’s proposed Agri-Food Regulator could be a “toothless tiger.”

The Clare Deputy has proposed amendments to the Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022 in advance of its anticipated passage through the Dáil next week before it goes the Seanad.

Deputy McNamara said the establishment of a regulator to look at the food chain is welcome but it’s equally important that the regulator has the explicit power to increase transparency.

“At it stands it will be a toothless tiger, reduced to merely studying and reporting data already in the public domain,” he explained.

“There’s some transparency in what producers get paid and plenty in what consumers pay but little transparency in between, in particular in the murky relationship between processors and retailers. Therefore, I am proposing an amendment requiring a lot more reporting by processors, in particular in regard the discounts and bonuses paid for both in-spec and out-of-spec cattle and what processors are being paid by retailers and any conditionality, specifically, around age demanded by the retailers. This needs to be taken out of the shadows and light shone on it for the benefit of everybody in the food chain.”

The County Clare Farmer and Barrister said the amendment is based on the US Agricultural and Food Supply Chain Bill 2022, passed by Congress in response to growing concern at the concentration of power in the so-called “meat-packers”, or processors, there. He added that the measures proposed are legally sound as they have survived in the USA notwithstanding the hostility of their processors to it.

Deputy McNamara has submitted a separate amendment that proposes to enable the new regulator, in conjunction with Teagasc, to determine the cost of production of basis food items, and to ban retailers in the State from selling such items below their cost of production.

“This mirrors a Spanish Law 16/2021, of 15 December, which was also to transpose into Spanish law the requirements in Directive (EU) No 2019/633,” explained the Clare TD. “While I accept there may be mush wringing of hands by Department officials about such a measure, if it’s lawful and can be done in Spain to protect their producer, it’s lawful and can be done here.”

Another amendment submitted by Deputy McNamara mirrors the Spanish Royal Decree-Law 5/2020 of February 25, 2020, the purpose of which is to implement the same EU law, Directive (EU) 2019/633 on unfair trading practices.

According to Deputy McNamara, “This would allow the regulator to outlay the cancellation of orders of perishable goods at very short notice and the practice of returning unsold produce without any payment, both of which are crippling the Irish horticultural sector. From the perspectives of food security, the environment and basic fairness to food producers, we cannot allow indigenous horticulture producers to be driven to the wall. The Bill offers the possibility to introduce protections but fails to do so.”

He added, “I have also proposed to undo the watering down of the protections introduced by Richard Bruton in the Consumer Protection Act 2007 (Grocery Goods Undertakings) Regulations 2016, introduced after significant work by the Oireachtas Agriculture Committee when I was a member from 2011 to 2016. This was replaced, under cover of Covid, on 28 April, 2021 by Charlie McConalogue and, to date, there has been little discussion of, or explanation for, the row-back of protections for producers.”

Meanwhile, Deputy McNamara has criticised the limited time of one hour being afforded to TDs to debate the Bill next week.

“It is regrettable that the Government has taken this approach. Farmers and food producers have waited this long, another hour or two would hardly make much difference if it meant that the Bill was improved. I would hope that if Minister McConalogue does not consider my amendments on the floor of the Dáil that he would do so as he brings the legislation forward to the Seanad,” concluded Deputy McNamara.