Should farmers believe anything that the supermarkets tell them? That’s the question from Chris Mallon, chief executive of the National Beef Association.
He said: “Yet again finishers are wondering what happened to the demand for their cattle. A year ago consumers found out that their cheap beef was horse, resulting in leading retailers telling farmers they were backing British beef, they had learned their lesson and local produce was their goal.
“But almost a year on and the promises seem hollow to those finishing British cattle. Prices have been on the slide for weeks and those producing under schemes such as Angus are faced with waiting lists.
“Retailers are putting pressure on processors to cut costs and cattle finishers are the first target.”
The lure of cheap imported beef once again seems to be more important than supply chain integrity, Mr Mallon said. After Ireland, Poland is the largest exporter of meat to the European market and already Irish-based processors are active there.
The labelling of country of origin is important to the consumer and farmer, and when meat is an ingredient, it also needs to show country of origin, he said
“Costs to finish cattle remain high, and although concentrate prices have come back, this is only a relatively recent incident in the lifespan of the cattle ready at the moment, when these cattle were calves and young stores concentrates were at record prices.
“Beef farming is not like pig or poultry production, cattle farmers cannot completely change their production systems in a matter of weeks.
“From getting the cow in-calf to getting the calf to anywhere near a slaughter weight will take at least 24 months for bulls and 33 months for steers.”
Mr Mallon explained that Angus beef schemes were being operated by many meat plants in response to supposed retailer demand and commitment to native breeds, yet those farmers dedicating their system to producing were been penalised by long waiting lists and reduced premiums.
He continued: “We all know that imported beef is steadily entering our market. Supermarket loyalty to British producers and processors genuinely using British produce seems to have been shortlived.
“Tesco maintained in April 2013 that they were building better relationships with farmers. At the moment the relationship needs counselling before all trust is lost.”
A spokesman for Tesco said that it had last month formalised two-year contracts with an inital 100 farmers and added: “These are the first long-erm direct contracts between beef farmers and a major retailer, and will provide an assured market outlet for a minimum period at a fair and sustainable price.”