Growers' vote of no confidence in Manor Farm CEO

Carton Bros decline to comment on latest development in cull controversy

A vote of ‘No Confidence’ in the CEO of Manor Farm by the IFA Manor Farm growers group follows a stand-off with the poultry farmers who questioned tests on samples flagging unauthorised antibiotic use in birds reared by two local growers.

“Was any other alternative source [for the positive trace] examined?” asks Patrick McCormack, the chair of the Sicín Co-Op Group, which supplies Manor Farm.

“The samples themselves could have become cross-contaminated, they did pass through a number of laboratories? They may have got contaminated in transit. Or there may be some other explanation, some source of vertical transmission may have occurred from the hen to the egg. We feel there are a lot of plausible alternative explanations, which weren’t explored.”

Around 60,000 birds were culled earlier this year, after tests in February allegedly “strongly” indicated the presence of antibiotic residue in birds reared at two farms supplying chickens to Manor Farm.

The co-op claims Department of Agriculture sampling conducted a week after the first round of testing was carried out cleared the growers concerned.

The “unprecedented” step, now calling for Ado Carton to resign his position, was taken at an online meeting of IFA members attached to Sicín Co-Op. Ado is cousin to Vincent and Justin Carton. Manor Farm has declined to make a statement on the vote.

The ‘no confidence’ vote was “overwhelmingly supported” say the IFA, who have subsequently relayed this message to Scandi Standard, the Swedish firm that purchased Manor Farm in a cash and shares deal worth €70 million back in 2017.

Manor Farm works with around 180 farm suppliers, many of them based in Cavan and Monaghan. Last month, the company invested heavily in launching its new Bord Bia quality assurance and Love Irish Food affiliated brand, Sicín Sásta. The brand’s tag-line is ‘Chicken raised right’.

In a letter to suppliers issued earlier this month, seen by The Anglo-Celt, Ado Carton said Manor Farm had to “take every precaution necessary” based on the information “available” to the business at the time. “The company’s actions were taken out of a necessity to honour the trust placed in us by both the consumer and customer, and in full consideration of the interests of our stakeholder groups.”

They accept “regrettably” these actions have ruffled feathers, particularly within Sicín Co-Op, of which the two farmers at the centre of the alleged controversy, are members.

They added: ‘We are fully committed to continuing our engagement with the co-op to resolve the situation.’

Manor Farm’s concerns back in February followed an initial investigation into alleged high early mortality in some broiler flocks.

As stated in the letter, this in-house investigation prompted greater concern when the positive presence of antibiotic residue was detected on birds checked (20 out of 20) over two growing houses at one farm (Site A).

The letter also says antibiotic traces were found in more than half (11 out of 20), over two houses owned by a different farmer (Site B).

Other flocks sampled at the time, Manor Farm told farmers, tested “negative” for antibiotic residues.

Chicken livers were sent for testing, with the alleged “positive” samples sent for further analysis.

The further testing reported that birds from Site A were found to contain more than six times the Maximum Residue Limit (MRL) for a Baytril type drug, as well as residues of amoxycillin at 1.5 times the MRL in one house.

Baytril, Manor Farm say, is a “last resort” drug that should not be used unless under strict veterinary prescription and supervision.

Site B samples were found below a level at which a residue can be correctly “determined”.

According to Manor Farm, samples checked on different days thereafter found one out of 10 birds positive for antibiotic residue in each house in Site A. “No positives” were found on Site B.

Department of Agriculture sampling a week after the initial tests showed seven out of 20 birds tested on Site A contained trace amounts of “analytes”, but all below the level required for a “positive result”.

Sampling on Site B were reportedly “all negative”.

Manor Farm say both Sicín Co-Op and the farmers involved were informed of the results.

Birds from Site A were destroyed, while those from Site B were “released and exported” when “negative test results” became available.

‘At all times the company, as a Food Business Operator (FBO), has worked in conjunction with the DAFM/FSAI and our customers, to take every precaution necessary based on the information available to it at that time,’ Mr Carton told farmers.

In reply, Sicín Co-Op argue that the testing method used was not validated for avian liver.

“A further factor is that at no stage were ‘B’ samples kept at any point in time to allow for back-up testing,” says Mr McCormack, who uses the analogy of drink driving legislation, which statutorily requires a sample of blood or urine to be provided to the defendant. “It’s a chain of evidence, and if that’s not there, the case falls. It’s as simple as that.” He says: “Us in Sicín Co-Op, we’re basing our trust in the Department of Agriculture investigation, that would seem to have cleared the two farmers involved.”

Copies of reports from the departments’ Investigations Division (ID), formerly the Special Investigations Unit (SIU), have been shared with Manor Farm management, says Mr McCormack.

He feels his fellow Sicín Co-Op farmers have been vindicated by those reports, commenting: “It’s exceedingly difficult to get anything in writing from the department. What happens is they conduct an investigation and, if something is wrong, they act rapidly and close the whole thing down. There’ll be yellow tape, lads in white boiler suits, there’ll be guards. You’ll know if there’s something wrong. But if there isn’t, and if everything’s clear, quite often you’ll never hear that side of the story. They might never come back to the farmer and let the whole thing sit.”

Mr McCormack, who says neither Sicín Co-Op nor IFA would condone any misuse of antibiotics in rearing, adds: “The two farmers have no birds at the minute, they’ve not been resupplied, the two farms are empty. That is also causing frustration among their fellow farmers.”

That stance, Mr McCormack states, was the proverbial “straw” that broke the camel’s back in a long-list of issues local growers feel need to be addressed.

Chief among those is for the implementation of a “contingency fund” covering losses and expenses associated with certain disease outbreaks in the commercial poultry sector.

Such a proposal came before the Poultry Working Group (PWG), an industry group set up to deal with the fallout from Avian Influenza and its effect on the Irish poultry sector in 2020, but fell flat when there was little or no buy-in from other stakeholders other than growers.

As an aside, Sicín Co-Op has long voiced interest in establishing a localised fund, with Manor Farm’s support, but claims the company has not engaged on such a model thus far. “There are outstanding issues not being addressed,” says Andrew Boylan, poultry chair with the IFA, and a Sicín Co-Op member based near Carrickmacross.

He accepts it’s an “unprecedented” step to openly point the finger at the CEO of Manor Farm, but it comes on the heels of a situation where demand for Bord Bia quality assured chicken has soared in the past 15 months under COVID-19 restrictions. Mr Boylan, like other farmers, feel this increased demand should have seen a commensurate level of “production and throughput” on Manor Farm broiler farms.

That this hasn’t happened, the IFA says, threatens to reduce the “financial viability” of every farmer in the supply chain.

Mr Boylan too believes the manner in which the testing for antibiotic traces was managed “should have been handled better”. “We supply Carton Bros through Sicín Co-op. We were not informed until 20 days after. The chickens are owned by Sicín Co-op, not the growers and not by Carton Bros. Where we are now is an unprecedented step. But a lot has happened, or not happened, which we’re very unhappy about.”

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) were also contacted for comment.

A spokesperson responded: “As there is an ongoing investigation, the FSAI is not in a position to comment.”