The EU Commission today published a report on the EU dairy market. It is mainly concerned with setting out the portfolio of measures available to alleviate the very difficult milk market situation. Demand for milk products, particularly the higher value products such as cheese and fresh products which account for 70 per cent of EU production, has been adversely affected by the economic downturn. At the same time, there has been a collapse in world market prices, due to a combination of production increases by other suppliers (New Zealand, Australia, Argentina, Brazil) responding to the dramatic increase in dairy product prices in 2007-08 and a drop in global demand due to the economic crisis.
The report also deals with the widening gap between the price paid to farmers for milk and the prices charged to consumers for milk products. The figures for Ireland are particularly startling, even if the pattern for other EU countries is broadly similar. Between Q4 2007 and Q1 2009, the price paid to farmers for raw milk in Ireland fell by 43%, with corresponding reductions in the wholesale prices paid for butter and skim milk powder of 44% and 41%, respectively. However, the CPI for the product category ‘milk, cheese, eggs’ (which includes other milk products but excludes butter) actually increased by 9% over the same period, compared to a 4% increase for food products generally. From the CSO databank, I calculated that the corresponding increase for butter was 2%, which while smaller, is still extraordinary in the light of the 44% decrease in the wholesale price of butter over the same period.
The Commission report underlines that this is not just an Irish problem. However, the Competition Authority’s recent investigation into grocery prices which recommended a relaxation of planning restrictions to encourage greater competition in the retail trade does not seem an adequate response to this total absence of price transmission in the dairy supply chain. At a minimum, we need much greater transparency in how margins are distributed between producers, processors and retailers.