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MLAs round on stores for 'almost obscene' prices paid to farmers

By Noel McAdam

Published 04/11/2015

Farmer Joe McCarragher with some of the turnips for which he is being paid a paltry 8p each
Farmer Joe McCarragher with some of the turnips for which he is being paid a paltry 8p each

Cutthroat competition between the big supermarket chains is forcing Northern Ireland farmers towards bankruptcy, angry MLAs have told company bosses.

The Assembly's agriculture committee accused the main supermarkets of taking the largest slices of profits and paying producers prices which were "almost obscene".

The attack from all main parties came after the Belfast Telegraph revealed one Co Armagh farmer received just 8p per turnip - which were then sold for up to 10 times that price on the shelves.

Richhill vegetable farmer Joe McCarragher went public on his plight last week and revealed he was also being paid 12p a kilo for carrots, which then sold for up to 80p.

But supermarket chiefs said they have no direct responsibility for the farmgate prices being paid and blamed volatility in global markets instead.

Bosses from Sainsbury's appeared before the committee yesterday to argue that they were trying to help farmers become more efficient and reduce their costs in a range of schemes.

Sainsbury's public affairs adviser Damien Drumm said 200 farmers here were involved in six development groups devising practical ways to increase their takings. Committee chair William Irwin told him and the company's head of trading and marketing, Nichola Heaslip: "Whether you like it or not, there is a perception that the big supermarkets are controlling the prices and forcing many producers into bankruptcy.

"All of you are pressurising the processors to reduce the prices, so even if you are not directly involved with the farmers you are impacting on them indirectly."

Ms Heaslip said she disagreed. "It is not in our interest to create relationships with our suppliers which are not sustainable and to put them out of business. I think we do a good job."

Alliance MLA Kieran McCarthy cited the case of Mr McCarragher and said the difference between his 8p payment and the price to customers was "almost obscene".

"There is something radically wrong. How can you defend the shocking discrepancy between what the hard-working farmer is receiving for his own product and the prices being charged?" he asked. Ms Heaslip said she could see how it looked but she was not aware of the particular grower and supermarkets alone could not dictate the price.

Mr Drumm, whose father is a farmer in Fermanagh, said Sainsbury's got one in three of its eggs from Northern Ireland along with 40% of its pork and 10% of its beef.

Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson asked if the company's schemes to help farmers were "mere window dressing", but Mr Drumm insisted they were serious initiatives.

Sinn Fein's Ian Milne asked if farmers here were being paid exactly the same as their UK counterparts, but the Sainsbury's representatives said they could not discuss prices in detail.

The SDLP's Joe Byrne, deputy chair of the committee, said: "It is crucial that the needs of the farmers/producers are recognised and that supermarket policy across the board reflects transparency and fairness for all in the supply chain."

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