In an attempt to reassurance farmers, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was monitoring prices and volumes in all UK agricultural sectors and that it was working hard to ensure UK beef exports to the European Union will continue post-Brexit.
It acknowledged that beef prices had fallen in recent months, saying this was “due to a range of market factors”.
Defra confirmed Mr Eustice would be meeting with farm unions to discuss the situation after the respective National Farmers’ Unions for England and Wales called for urgent talks.
England’s union leader Minette Batters said she will use the opportunity to quiz the Minister on how Defra and other government departments plan to investigate the beef sector and address its transparency and fairness.
“If unfair practices are found to pervade this market then they must be dealt with,” she said.
As reported in The Yorkshire Post last month, a wide range of factors have created a perfect storm for the beef trade.
The NFU has warned that some farmers may be forced out of the sector as a result because of prices that have plummeted well below production costs and the five-year average.
Prime cattle prices have been in decline since the end of September last year, off the back of two years of relatively high prices.
Industry Levy body Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board has blamed several factors, from poor consumer demand and fewer beef ‘occasions’ in food service, to higher average carcase weights giving increased production, a fall in average UK export prices and an increase in Irish exports at lower prices.
North Yorkshire farmer and NFU livestock board chairman Richard Findlay has speculated that the release of beef product that had been stockpiled in March to prepare for a no-deal Brexit and the unreliable weather this summer, which has changed consumer eating and cooking habits, had played a role in distorting the market.
To explore solutions, Ms Batters and NFU Cymru president John Davies demanded urgent talks with Mr Eustice this week.
Ms Batters said: “This prolonged period of low prices is extremely alarming and is causing huge pressure on farming businesses.
“The current price that farmers are receiving for their cattle is completely unsustainable and falls well below the cost of production. This is simply unacceptable. The returns to farmers must enable this industry to remain sustainable or we will start to see people leaving the industry.”
She said she feared prices would hit a new low if Prime Minister Boris Johnson pulls Britain out of the European Union on October 31 without a deal.
“The criminally low prices we are seeing today in this and other sectors could also be made worse by a no-deal Brexit at the end of October, which would see British farmers lose access to their largest trading partner,” she said.
“It is critical that the Government address these issues urgently before chasing down widespread reform of agricultural support.”
Mr Davies added: “We have reached crisis point in the beef market. Let’s be clear, the sustainability of specialist beef production is at stake here.
“Farmers frustration at the operation of the marketplace is at boiling point.
“The UK Government has a duty to ensure fair and functioning supply chains and we ask that they investigate this as a matter of urgency.
“I look forward to meeting the Minister with Minette to discuss this critical issue for our members.”
Asked by The Yorkshire Post if Mr Eustice would honour the request for an urgent meeting, a Defra spokeswoman said: “Defra has been working very closely with the NFU and a range of stakeholders to ensure our food and farming sectors are prepared as we leave the EU on 31 October.
“The Farming Minister George Eustice regularly meets with the NFU and has already agreed to a further meeting with them as part of these continued efforts.”
And the spokeswoman added: “As we have made clear, we have plans in place to minimise any disruption to farmers and we will intervene to support some sectors in the unlikely event this is required.
“There is also significant work under way to ensure that UK exporters can maintain access to EU markets.”