‘Unacceptable’ specification changes hurting beef farmers

Retailers, foodservice companies and processors must be held accountable for short notice changes to beef specifications, which often leave farmers out of pocket. 

That was the message from Ulster Farmers’ Union (UFU) deputy president Victor Chestnutt following last week’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) committee discussion on beef payment grids and specifications.

According to Chestnutt, more constructive solutions should be in place to ensure that farmers are not disadvantaged in the supply chain.

“We welcome the interest the EFRA committee at Westminster has taken in changes to cattle specifications and the notice periods traditionally given to farmers,” said Chestnutt. “This is an area which has caused great financial and practical difficulties for farmers in Northern Ireland.”

The deputy president said that changes to specifications often resulted in financial penalties for farmers, which hit their bottom lines.

“From experience we know that it is processors who are responsible for changing the specification for farmers and for putting in place the penalties. However, major companies in retail and foodservice must also be held accountable as they dictate the changes to the rest of the supply chain.”

Chestnutt said it was “unacceptable” that changes in specifications put financial hardships on farmers, and that he was disappointed that processors have not felt comfortable enough to challenge the introduction of specifications that have a negative impact on the beef industry.

“I can only assume this is because they fear losing business and that the cost of not complying is too great a risk, but to me this is a perfect example of a dysfunctional supply chain and a set of circumstances which requires big changes.

“Farmers are passionate about producing the end product that the consumer will want to buy and enjoy, but the supply chain needs to recognise that from the day a bull is put in with a cow to the day that their offspring is slaughtered is a long term process.”

It can take somewhere in the region of three years to produce a prime animal due to differing farm production systems. This means that if the specification changes within a number of weeks, farmers might not always have time to adjust.

“I would strongly encourage the EFRA committee to challenge retailers, foodservice companies and processors on short notice periods and also on how specifications are devised,” added Chestnutt.

“Specifications are supposed to reflect what consumers want, but I doubt consumers would be happy if they knew that the dominant retailers, foodservice companies and processors were financially penalising farmers to achieve this. Farmers are the first link in our supply chain but are the last to be consulted on specification changes, therefore we need a process which sees farmer involvement in discussions around these changes and one which will deliver the long term notice that our farmers really need.”

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