€40m beef plant now in doubt after Chi­nese backer re­fused ac­cess to in­vest­ment scheme

For­mer Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture Barry Cowen de­mands an­swers from Gov­ern­ment on de­ci­sion that jeop­ar­dises pro­posed beef plant in Of­faly

Irish Independent - Farming - - FRONT PAGE - Ciaran Moran

A PRO­POSED €40m beef plant ex­pan­sion in Of­faly is now in doubt, leading to claims that the Gov­ern­ment is fa­cil­i­tat­ing a “golden circle” of meat pro­ces­sors.

The ex­pan­sion of a small abat­toir near Banagher re­ceived planning approval last week from Of­faly County Coun­cil. The plant would have the ca­pac­ity to slaugh­ter up to 140 un­der-30-month cat­tle per day ex­clu­sively for Asian mar­kets.

How­ever, one of the key back­ers of the project, for­mer Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture Barry Cowen, said it is now un­der threat be­cause of the Gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sion not to give the Chi­nese in­vestor be­hind the project ac­cess to the State’s im­mi­grant in­vestor pro­gramme.

Suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants are granted per­mis­sion to re­side in Ire­land for a fixed pe­riod; the res­i­dency rights also ap­ply to their fam­i­lies.

Mr Cowen also claimed that the Gov­ern­ment’s ra­tio­nale for re­ject­ing the in­vestor’s ap­pli­ca­tion was that it’s not Gov­ern­ment pol­icy to pur­sue the de­vel­op­ment of ad­di­tional plants.

IFA pres­i­dent Tim Cul­li­nan called on the Gov­ern­ment to clar­ify its po­si­tion.

“The golden circle that the sec­tor had become has to be chal­lenged,” he said. “We badly need new en­trants in the sec­tor to shake things up. We see cat­tle be­ing pro­cessed in North­ern Ire­land at far higher prices than here, and higher prices be­ing paid for fin­ished stock in marts. It is clear that we need more com­pe­ti­tion.”

ICSA beef chair­man Ed­mund Gra­ham called on Min­is­ter for Jus­tice He­len McEn­tee to ur­gently re­view the “baf­fling de­ci­sion” to refuse an ap­pli­ca­tion from in­vestors un­der the Im­mi­grant In­vestor Pro­gramme”.

The dom­i­nance of the three main meat pro­ces­sors ABP, Kepak and Dawn Meats over UK and Ir­ish beef pro­cess­ing was fur­ther ex­tended last week with Dawn tak­ing full con­trol of Dun­bia.

IT’S 18 months since for­mer Min­ster for Agri­cul­ture Barry Cowen first started work­ing with in­vestors led by a Hong Kong na­tional to iden­tify a site for a meat pro­cess­ing plant.

The site cho­sen for the am­bi­tious €40m plan was the lo­ca­tion of a pre­vi­ous small abat­toir, Banagher Chill­ing.

Lit­tle is known about the in­vestors in the project, with com­pany records show­ing that the com­pany’s cur­rent di­rec­tors are Li Wang and Jian­wei Wang. They have been de­scribed by Bord Bia as “com­mit­ted”, “well-con­nected” and with “suc­cess­ful Chi­nese business in­ter­ests”.

According to Cowen the com­pany has a proven track record of ex­port­ing beef to Hong Kong and Viet­nam.

He added that the ma­jor­ity share­holder in the lead com­pany, Banagher Chill­ing, has been liv­ing in Ire­land since 1999.

“He com­pleted his third-level ed­u­ca­tion here and op­er­ated in the re­tail and restaurant sec­tor, un­til in re­cent years when he be­came in­volved in the ex­port business to China and the broader Asian re­gion,” said Cowen.

When, in July 2019 planning no­tices ap­peared in local press with de­tails of the project, it was ini­tially re­ported lo­cally that the in­vestors had plans to con­struct one of the largest meat pro­cess­ing plants in the coun­try, killing over 250 cat­tle a day with the project likened to ABP’s fac­tory in Ne­nagh.

The planning records seen by the Farm­ing In­de­pen­dent for the project do not re­fer to that fig­ure but do say the plant would process 140 cat­tle per day.

To achieve this, the ex­ist­ing slaugh­ter line would be mod­i­fied and length­ened within the ex­ist­ing abat­toir build­ing.

Ad­di­tional cat­tle chills would be con­structed, along with of­fices and staff fa­cil­i­ties. The ex­ist­ing lairage would be ex­tended, and the live­stock yard in­creased in size.

In ad­di­tion, the de­vel­op­ment would see the constructi­on of a meat cutting, pack­ing, blast freez­ing and cold stor­age fa­cil­ity with an out­put of ap­prox­i­mately 50 tonnes per day.

In what would be a boon to beef farm­ers, the com­pany planned to ex­port the beef to Asian mar­kets ex­clu­sively.

This is also in­di­cated in the planning records which high­lights Chi­nese de­mands for un­der-30-month cat­tle only and thus notes the plant will only process heifers, steers and young bulls.

There was some op­po­si­tion to the plan, with one planning ob­jec­tion ar­gu­ing that the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment had the po­ten­tial to “cause huge car­bon diox­ide emis­sions at a time of na­tional and global cli­mate cri­sis”.

Strate­gic ben­e­fit

Farm or­gan­i­sa­tions, how­ever, hailed the project with ICSA beef chair­man Ed­mund Gra­ham de­scrib­ing it as of huge strate­gic ben­e­fit to the long-suf­fer­ing beef farm­ing sec­tor.

Bord Bia also backed the project, and in cor­re­spon­dence seen by this paper it de­scribes the project as “par­tic­u­larly op­por­tune” given that Ire­land be­came the first Euro­pean coun­try to gain ac­cess to China ear­lier in 2018.

A Bord Bia rep­re­sen­ta­tive high­lighted work be­ing un­der­taken to ren­o­vate ex­ist­ing meat pro­cess­ing plants in Ire­land to ad­here to the de­mands to Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties.

It also high­lighted that hav­ing the com­mit­ment of well-con­nected and suc­cess­ful Chi­nese business in­ter­ests would be of ma­jor ben­e­fit.

Bord Bia in­di­cated that it would be glad to sup­port the pro­posal in any way it can, in­clud­ing through its of­fices in Shang­hai and Dublin.

So it came as a shock when Cowen re­vealed last week that one of the project’s back­ers had been re­fused ac­cess to the Gov­ern­ment’s Im­mi­grant In­vestor Pro­grammes open to ap­pli­cants that in­vest over €1m.

Un­der this pro­gramme, suc­cess­ful ap­pli­cants and their fam­i­lies are granted per­mis­sion to re­side in Ire­land for a fixed pe­riod. Ap­pli­cants must be high-net-worth in­di­vid­u­als with a per­sonal wealth of at least €2m.

Cowen (pic­tured) has said the de­ci­sion could jeop­ar­dise a multi-mil­lion in­vest­ment which was granted planning approval by Of­faly County Coun­cil last week.

“To my ut­ter dis­may and dis­be­lief, an eval­u­a­tion com­mit­tee made up of se­nior of­fi­cials from rel­e­vant gov­ern­ment de­part­ments and Ir­ish State Agen­cies has re­fused the first such ap­pli­ca­tion,” said Cowen.

“Now I might only have been Min­is­ter for Agri­cul­ture for 17 days, but you’d hardly need a Green Cert to recog­nise that this con­clu­sion in no way re­flects the Ir­ish farm­ing sec­tor’s un­der­stand­ing of gov­ern­ment pol­icy, which has for over 10 years sought to open Asian mar­kets which this plant and project will ex­clu­sively sup­ply.

“Beef and suck­ler farm­ers crave new mar­kets, crave greater com­pe­ti­tion in the pro­cess­ing sec­tor… most of all they crave op­por­tu­ni­ties, ini­tia­tives, pro­grammes and Gov­ern­ment pol­icy that main­tains and im­proves in­comes for farm fam­i­lies.”

According to Cowen, the com­mit­tee ad­ju­di­cat­ing the ap­pli­ca­tion con­cluded: “The pro­posed project is not an ap­pro­pri­ate project for approval” and “the project does not align with Gov­ern­ment pol­icy in re­la­tion to the beef pro­cess­ing in­dus­try… it is not cur­rently pol­icy to pur­sue the de­vel­op­ment of ad­di­tional plants where there is no es­tab­lished deficit in ca­pac­ity”.

The ICSA’s Ed­mund Gra­ham de­scribed it as to­tally un­ac­cept­able de­ci­sion which un­der­mines com­pe­ti­tion in a sec­tor.

“Farm­ers are ut­terly frus­trated at the closed-shop nature of beef pro­cess­ing. The com­mit­tee has gone well beyond its re­mit in re­fer­ring to Gov­ern­ment pol­icy to ra­tio­nalise beef pro­cess­ing,” he said.

Cowen is de­mand­ing an­swers: “So, a €40m project which has the approval of the State’s Planning Au­thor­ity, co­op­er­a­tion of Of­faly County Coun­cil, the sup­port of com­mu­nity and re­gion, backing of beef farm­ers, sup­port of Bord Bia and as­sis­tance of Agri­cul­ture De­part­ment of­fi­cials has been re­sisted and dis­ap­proved by an eval­u­a­tion com­mit­tee that over­sees im­mi­grant in­vest­ment scheme.

Pol­icy

“Also, this project seem­ingly doesn’t align with Gov­ern­ment pol­icy? Who then is on this eval­u­a­tion com­mit­tee? Will they make avail­able the var­i­ous re­ports they sought from rel­e­vant Gov­ern­ment de­part­ments?

“Will they en­lighten us as to where is it stated in Gov­ern­ment pol­icy that there’s no deficit in ca­pac­ity?

“I need these an­swers and I need them fast.”

The Min­is­ter for Jus­tice, He­len McEn­tee said in the Dáil last week that while she could not com­ment on in­di­vid­ual cases, there is “a com­pre­hen­sive sys­tem and struc­ture in place” to eval­u­ate ap­pli­ca­tions for the im­mi­grant in­vest­ment pro­gramme.

A De­part­ment of Agri­cul­ture spokesper­son said there is no im­ped­i­ment to ad­di­tional beef plants be­ing es­tab­lished.

‘This con­clu­sion in no way re­flects the farm­ing sec­tor’s un­der­stand­ing of gov­ern­ment pol­icy’

PHOTO: JEFF HAR­VEY

In jeop­ardy: The site of the pro­posed de­vel­op­ment out­side Banagher, Of­faly

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