THE mild responses from those contacted by Fairfax Media this week with regard to Queensland Senator Barry O’Sullivan’s criticism of the beef industry’s lack of progress comes as no great surprise.
The industry is complex. The range of producers in their size, location and end markets is huge and changeable. As we increase the number of branded products, export destinations, or as seasons come and go, by nature the variability across the industry constantly changes. Representation therefore becomes a moving target. But, for all its diversity, a lot of our beef does bottle neck through a handful of processors, and the issues here are many, as highlighted in the recent Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) and senate inquiries. The ACCC stopped just short of recommending government intervention.
The driver behind these inquiries has been a lack of transparency and a lack of trust between between producers and processors, factors which – thanks to the aforementioned inquiries – has now been well documented. Given what is coming to light in these investigations, Mr O’Sullivan’s frustration over the lack of movement, from both the producer and processor sector, is justified.
Meanwhile, processors have long complained that governments, and the media, tend to take a ‘producer-centric’ approach to any issues involving the beef industry. Yet, apart from some notable recent movement driven by the Australian Meat Processor Corporation, they have been unwilling to put forward their case – publicly at least.
Given the supply chain bottleneck, the levy dollars being poured into new processing technology (ie. producers might be paying to introduce DEXA), the lack of transparency, and the fact processors won’t talk publicly, then of course the coverage is going to be producer-centric. In this context, the senate and ACCC have a tricky task. The process will be drawn out as we wait to see what is decided around the introduction of new technologies, or whether intervention is required to bring the transparency so badly needed to rebuild trust.
The reality is government has been withdrawing from abattoirs for years, so, along with warnings already made by the ACCC, are Mr O’Sullivan’s threats hollow? The quiet on all sides in the face of acknowledged issues might just be the catalyst the government needs to intervene. If so, we might yet hear what the processors have to say.