Agri-Food Regulator “not credible” without powers to obtain information from processors – McNamara

Independent Clare TD Michael McNamara says the Government’s Agricultural & Food Supply Chain Bill is not credible in the Irish context if it does not even refer to processors.

Deputy McNamara added that the proposed Agri-Food Regulator cannot be successful unless the office is afforded the power to probe trade between processors and retailers and the impact of processor-owned or controlled feedlots on prices.

The Government parties rejected several amendments to the Bill put forward by the Clare TD during last evening’s debate in Dáil Éireann, including one seeking more reporting by processors, in particular with regard to 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. Information on numbers of feedlot cattle or other cattle supplied under contract could also be required.

Deputy McNamara agreed with the Minister that the establishment of a regulator to look at the food chain was “historic” but “only to the extent that never has so much hope been offered but so little delivered by way of concrete powers to a regulator.”

“The Minister is one of the few people who believe the mere establishment of the post of regulator will bring transparency, “explained Deputy McNamara. “It cannot and will not bring transparency, however, unless regulations can be made by the Minister or his successors to give the regulator the powers to seek the information needed to know where the profits are being made in the food chain. Massive profits are being made in the food chain but they are not being made by producers.”

The Clare-based farmer and barrister said the proposed amendment was based on the US Livestock Mandatory Reporting Act of 1999, passed by Congress in response to growing concern at the concentration of power in the so-called meat-packers, or processors, there.

McNamara also criticised 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, which was replaced, under cover of Covid, on 28 April, 2021 by Minister Charlie McConalogue.

He sought to provide an explicit basis in law for the Minister to reverse this, with another amendment mirroring a Spanish law of 2020, the purpose of which is to implement the same EU law, Directive (EU) 2019/633 on unfair trading practices, that is being implemented by the Bill before the Dáil, proposed by the Minister.   Deputy McNamara says this could explicitly allow for the outlawing of 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.

He said, “We know that the number of horticulture producers in Ireland is decreasing year on year. Even though this country is ideally suited to growing food, including horticultural products, more and more of it is being imported. We know this has a detrimental effect on our environment because imported food has a far greater carbon footprint than food produced in Ireland. If we are serious about the environment, eating organic carrots flown from one part of the world to another is not going to help our environment in any way.”

A further proposed amendment by Deputy McNamara to enable the new regulator, in conjunction with Teagasc, to determine the cost of production of basis food items, and to outlaw anybody from being required to sell them in the State below their cost of production has yet to be considered by the Dáil. This amendment is similar to, and based upon, another Spanish law of 2021, according to the Clare TD.  “While I accept there may be much wringing of hands by Department officials about such a measure, if it’s lawful and can be done in Spain to protect producers there, it’s lawful and can be done here,” he explained.

Having criticised the initial proposal to limit the time being afforded to TDs to debate the Bill to just one hour, speaking last night, Deputy McNamara thanked the Ceann Comhairle and the Government Chief Whip “for facilitating a fuller debate on this Bill than might otherwise have been possible. I do not expect that we will agree on everything. We might not agree on anything, but I am glad we at least all agree this is an important topic that deserves a detailed debate.”