BEEF PRODUCERS are now losing between £150 and £200 on every beast they sell – and while everyone agrees that there is a beef price crisis, there is scant agreement on what can be done to fix it.

All eyes will therefore be on Stirling next Monday, where Scottish rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing has called a beef industry summit to bring together all the players in the chain, and hear their versions of what is wrong, and what should be done.

This meeting follows on from last week's NFU Scotland-organised beef sector summit in Inverurie, and the Scottish Beef Association's AGM in Stirling, both of which produced a lot of heat, but not a lot of light.

Speaking at Wigtown Show this week, NFUS president Andrew McCornick insisted that there was 'no quick fix' for the beef price crisis, and the sector's only way ahead was through forging better links up and down the production chain – and that would take patience and a lot more talk.

"Producers want a silver bullet to fix this, but it isn't going to happen," said Mr McCornick. "A lot of people are looking for instant results but unfortunately that is just not going to be the case.

"Long term, we have to look at better vertical integration, and everybody in an integrated chain should get their fair share, but to achieve that, we will maybe need a cash injection," he said.

There was a less co-operative mood at the Scottish Beef Association AGM, where beef producers and finishers pointed the finger of blame directly at the lack of competition between processors and the lack of retail sector promotion for the Scotch brand.

SBA chairman, Neil Mc Corkindale, noted that the retail price had remained steady over the last year while farmgate prices had plummeted. Commercial cattle were back close to £200 on last year, while scheme cattle such as Aberdeen Angus were back close to £250, he claimed.

"Bearing in mind last year was not by any means a buoyant year for finishers those prices are unsustainable," said Mr McCorkindale. "How can the sector continue to produce beef if there is not an immediate rise in finished prices? The effect of Brexit on the beef market earlier in the year is not disputed by the SBA but we have seen continual punishment of finishers by the over-stocking of processors.

NBA chief executive Chris Mallon asked: "Retail price has been steady, exports are up, and the UK only supplies 80% of its own consumption, so how can farmers be getting such poor prices? Farmers share of the retail price continues to fall. Producers' share of the retail price was historically 55% while now we are getting nearer 46%.

"I know of people who have decided not to fill newly erected cattle courts as it makes better sense to leave them empty," said Mr Mallon. "The situation is terminal and without immediate change the store trade in the autumn will suffer as finishers struggle to make up their losses.

"With every 100 cattle consigned being back £20,000 on last year it is unsustainable. No matter how efficient we are, no matter how low interest rates, it is impossible to make the job pay."

Mr McCorkindale added: "More government support for the producer might help slow down the number of cows leaving the hills and uplands in the short term, but until the finishers get a fairer share of the profits that some individuals are making, according to reports, we will continue to see farmers walk away from the beef industry leaving a drastic fall in production. Do processors want a supply of Scotch Beef in the future or are they happy just to import more and process that in the mix? Retailers must support the Scotch label and ensure a fair price is paid for it by their processors."

At last week's north-east summit, Mr McCornick, who chaired the meeting, had noted that Scottish-produced red meat 'ticks all the boxes for sustainability' and that the country's stock farmers were going to great lengths to rear stock and produce meat to the standards demanded by the public, but there was a lingering feeling that labelling at the retail end was letting the side down.

There was agreement, he said, that more could be done to ensure clearer country of origin labelling (COOL) on processed or lightly processed products. Packaging could claim Scottish credentials while not including Scottish meat and clarity on this would give the shopper the transparency they needed to support Scottish farmers and crofters.

Mr McCornick also highlighted the disconnect between the high standard of meat produced in Scotland, and the low standard often presented by the hospitality sector, not to mention the 'processed rubbish' served up in schools and hospitals.

There was, he said, general agreement in the sector that domestic governments needed to do more to ensure that Scotch Beef and other domestic produce is fully utilised in public procurement, alongside greater effort from the food service sector in procuring and promoting a Scottish food offering.

Commenting on next week's beef summit in Stirling, Mr Ewing said: “We are already seeing the EU and Irish government working together to support Irish beef farmers who have experienced significant price drops since Brexit was announced, and I have been in contact with the UK Secretary of State regarding the ongoing drop in the UK beef prices.

“I remain committed to seeing what can be done to help alleviate the price drop and the challenges faced, which is why I intend to chair a special beef summit to hear directly from our farmers and trade bodies who are at the tip of the Brexit iceberg. I am clear that we will do everything within our power to support farmers during these turbulent times and urge the UK Government to sustain our beef sectors.”