The new Office, which was described as a ‘key programme for Government commitment’, will play a role in analysing and reporting on price and market data in Ireland's agri-food chain.
The ombudsman will incorporate enforcement activity functions, as required by the EU Unfair Trading Practices Directive.
The deadline for Member States to turn the EU Directive into national law is 1 May. The Directive gives the power to Member States to legislate for additional legal requirements, going beyond the scope of the UTP Directive.
Underlining this point, Ireland’s Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine noted that – in addition to setting up the new Office – the primary legislation could also introduce rules that ‘go beyond those included in the UPT Directive’.
“I expect to announce shortly the transposition of the UTP Directive as it stands through secondary legislation, a Statutory Instrument. This consultation includes an opportunity for input from the public on additional functions that can and should be assigned to the new Office," Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue explained.
“I am fully committed to ensuring fairness, equity and transparency in the agricultural and food supply chain. The establishment of the new Office is an important step towards achieving that.
“The outcome of this consultation will help to determine the principles and policies to be included in the new legislation and the powers to be assigned to the new Office. I encourage all stakeholders to participate in the consultation to help define the future role of the new Office,” the minister continued.
Farmers call for regulator with ‘real teeth’
Responding to the announcement, the Irish Farmers’ Association insisted that the new body needed to have ‘real teeth’ to be able to ‘hold processors and retailers to account’.
According to the farming lobby, food makers and retailers leverage their dominant market positions to the detriment of other players in the agri-food supply chain.
“At present, farmers feel that processors and retailers are abusing their dominant market positions with impunity and that the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission has failed farmers,” IFA President Tim Cullinan said.
The buying power of these much larger organisations, who use the situation to ensure the lowest purchase prices possible, is hurting farm incomes, he continued. “The recurring evidence of large retailers dominating the market with excessive buying power has to stop. This drives prices to farmers to unviable levels, often below the cost of production.”
For what the IFA characterises as unfair trading practices to ‘stop’, Cullinan insisted that the new regulator needs to sweeping powers of investigation and enforcement. “It must have full powers of investigation, the ability to make findings and the authority to impose sanctions,” he said.
While Cullinan acknowledged the Unfair Trading Practices Directive is being transposed into national law, he insisted that the Office needs to be established in short order: ‘We cannot have any foot dragging.’
The Unfair Trading Practices Directive ‘must be backed up by serious legislation’, he continued. “At present, only 6% of farmers in Ireland are under 35 years of age. We will not attract young people into the sector unless they get a fair return for what they produce.”
Food Drink Ireland said that is welcomed the commitment in the Programme for Government to establish a National Food Obmudsman.
"It is important to ensure that transposition of the Unfair Trading Practices Directive does not roll back the protections in the Grocery Regulations 2016," noted the Ibec group that represents the food and drink industry in Ireland.
"The extent of proactivity by the proposed enforcement authority in ensuring compliance with Regulations will be a defining issue."