A newly created agricultural ombudsman would have a far greater impact in restoring beef farmers’ confidence in the future of their industry than a code of conduct would, according to the National Beef Association.
But there is no support for the idea from the wider industry or within Westminster, the National Farmers’ Union claimed. The union’s national livestock board chairman Chris Sercombe said a code of conduct could be quickly drafted in and would deliver better relationships between beef producers and processors.
Rock bottom farm gate prices for beef have been highlighted by the union at the Great Yorkshire Show this week as they have fallen by more than 60p per kg in the last year. It has left some farmers facing a £200 loss on every animal they produce. At the same time, the retail price has risen by more than 46p per kg and the gap between farmgate and retail price is now £1.20 a kg more than in 2007.
The slump is blamed on reduced demand in the shops coupled with an abundance of cattle on the market but the NFU has accused the major retailers of failing to adequately and clearly promote British beef above cheaper imported meat. Meanwhile, abattoirs are guilty of making “overnight” changes to beef carcass specifications resulting in financial penalties for farmers, the union says.
Chris Mallon, the NBA’s chief executive, said it was clear that action was necessary to tackle the plunging prices of homegrown beef and insisted that an ombudsman should be brought in.
“The NBA does not believe that a voluntary code is enough to provide stability to the industry,” Mr Mallon said. “Any code - whether voluntary or not - needs to have an ability to police itself and have enforcement powers.”
An ombudsman would oversee the relationship between producers and processors, he said.
“The introduction of an ombudsman would give producers greater confidence that they are being treated fairly, provide a forum to deal with complaints and have the power to enforce its decisions.”
But Mr Sercombe, of the NFU, said he was disappointed with the position taken by the NBA as the organisation sent representatives to the beef summit that was called last week by Farming Minister George Eustice to discuss the way forward.
Speaking to The Yorkshire Post at the Great Yorkshire Show, Mr Sercombe said: “There was discussion about this, and it was agreed unanimously that these issues did not fall under the responsibility of an adjudicator, that there wasn’t the resources available to do it and there isn’t the will within government to legislate to put it in place.
“There was a very strong feeling that it wouldn’t be able to deliver any advantages whereas a voluntary code could be put in place very quickly and would bring the clarity, openness and transparency that we are calling for in the way processors work with farmers.”
The beef industry, processors and retailers will meet in the coming weeks to produce a report into the areas a new industry code of conduct should cover.