Labelling plays a big part in people’s perception of what is and isn’t Irish and with lax labelling regulations it’s impossible for the consumer to be sure of the origin of the pork and bacon they are buying.

Photo Credit - Ruth Ronan

Photo Credit – Ruth Ronan

‘Produce of Ireland’ and ‘Produced in Ireland’. To the average consumer these mean the same thing, however they have two quite different meanings. The first means the meat is 100% born and reared in Ireland, the second means the meat could be Irish, Danish, Dutch etc. but something has been added, such as salt, water, packaging, so it can be labelled as ‘Produced in Ireland’ so there is possibly a different country of origin in the second example yet consumers would perceive both labels to mean ‘100% Irish’

On April 1 this year, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney signed into law, new rules which will comply with EU Regulation 1337/2013 and apply to the country of origin labelling on packaged pig, sheep and goat meat as well as poultry. This new legislation introduces requirements on food processors, retailers and butcher shops to ensure country of origin information is available on labels of pre-packaged meat products.

What does this new legislation mean for Irish pig farmers and producers? Very little. What this legislation covers in relation to pig meat products is minute. It applies to all fresh pork, only, once it’s not loose, so effectively it applies to pork chops that are pre-packaged in the plastic containers you find in the fridges of supermarkets. It doesn’t cover any cured meat.

Chairman of the Irish Farmers Association (IFA) Pigs Committee, Pat O’ Flaherty is less than impressed with the new legislation saying, “its rubbish, useless. This legislation applies to only a tiny percentage because most of the pig meat we sell in the country is bacon. So, bacon joints or rashers, it doesn’t cover any processed meats and bacon is considered processed because there’s salt added.”

The new EU Legislation does very little to help the current country of origin situation - Photo Credit - Hakan Dalstrom

The new EU Legislation does very little to help the current country of origin situation – Photo Credit – Hakan Dahlstrom (flickr)

This legislation also rules out ‘loose’ products so, pork sold in a butchers shop isn’t covered under the new rules. The latest tests carried out by the IFA, using their DNA testing programme, as published in their February 2015 report, showed that 29% of pork sold as “Irish” in butchers wasn’t actually from this country. This figure is down from 50% in their previous assessment but shows that consumers being misled by butchers is still a serious issue, and one that this new legislation will have no real bearing on since pork meat in a butchers is loose. Butchers feared that labelling legislation would add undue expense to them and by default then the consumer but Mr. O’Flaherty says this isn’t the case.

“No, it doesn’t add expense. Butchers can put it up on a chalk board saying ‘my pork is Irish, my pork is Danish’ or wherever its origin is and that adds no extra labelling costs but they know as soon as it’s on a board the customer will see it’s not Irish and won’t want to buy it, which is why they are trying to muddy the water and claim the DNA testing programme is ‘flawed’.”

A board like this outside a butcher shop or on the wall can help consumers know the origin of their pig meat - Photo Credit - Phillip Jeffrey

A board like this outside a butcher shop or on the wall can help consumers know the origin of their pig meat – Photo Credit – Phillip Jeffrey (flickr)

This recent claim about flawed testing comes from McConnon meats in an Irish Independent article when one of his pieces of meat tested positive for non-Irish meat, claiming two of the boars from the farm he buys from weren’t registered in the database. However, an IFA spokesperson claimed “the DNA certification programme is robust and the results gathered from samples are published based on agreed protocols. The agreed interpretation and action to be taken on results is based on finding four to five matches out of five samples.”

While MEP Mairéad McGuinness said that if butchers exploited the loyalty of customers by selling imported meat under the banner of Irish produce this would be a tragedy. “Such shops have enjoyed a much greater level of consumer loyalty in recent years with people wanting to buy locally and support their local communities. Clear and accurate information is all that consumers want.”

The testing programme was established in 2014 to try to combat the lack of legislation by the Irish Government and EU Commission in relation to misleading labelling on pork and bacon products that were being sold in Ireland. “What the pig section has done is they have set up a DNA database of all the boars in Ireland, so all the boars from the five Artificial Insemination stations in Ireland and all the farms in Ireland are put on a database and then we can test any piece of meat and see if it matches the boars on the database and say if the meat is Irish or not,” says Mr. O’Flaherty. This is an expensive programme with all funding for testing last year coming from farmer’s subscriptions to the IFA, a lobbying organisation who represents farmers in Ireland, and without improved legislation to make it more robust it’s a difficult long term solution.

Another way of trying to improve the consumer knowledge of what is and isn’t Irish pork or bacon is the Bord Bia Logo. “What we have done with the supermarkets is, most of their stuff is pre-packed and we have most of them at this stage on the Bord Bia logo, which means once it’s under the Bord Bia logo, the produce is Irish, there should be no issue with that,” says Mr. O’ Flaherty.

Look out for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance mark to ensure your meat is Irish - Photo Credit - Irishfoodpr.com

Look out for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance mark to ensure your meat is Irish – Photo Credit – Irishfoodpr.com

A major flaw in the EU system is their  One Step Traceability System which, simply put, means that for labelling requirements the producers only need to go back one step in the process of the meat so if a person has a factory in Holland, and imports South American pig meat, this meat that originated in South America goes from Holland to Ireland and is then labelled as ‘Dutch meat’. But in reality, that meat is South American, not Dutch so this is a gross mislabelling of origin and again misinforms the consumer. However, the system is different for beef and the reason for this is “money. It’s about politics as always. The reason it’s different for beef is because there are 30,000 beef farmers, and only about 300 pig farmers,” says Mr. O’Flaherty. In terms of output, pig-meat is the third most important agricultural sector in Ireland but only counts for 6% of Gross Agricultural Output in contrast to beef and dairy. But the profitability gap remains too great with production costs such as feed prices too high for farmers to get a good price for their meat.

It is hard to understand the reasoning behind not introducing the same legislation that has been in Ireland for beef since 2006, especially after the horsemeat scandal in 2013 and there still hasn’t been a change in the mind-set of the meat of the meat industry and the seriousness of the inadequate labelling laws currently in place.

Mr. O’Flaherty’s exasperation is evident, “It comes back to proper traceability and to inform the consumer properly. I don’t have a problem with it being Danish meat etc. it’s just the fact that they are conning the consumer and nobody seems to care. The consumer is being ripped off and misled.”

Is the 'skew' you're buying Irish? - Photo Credit - Mallorie Ronan

Is the ‘skew’ you’re buying Irish? – Photo Credit – Mallorie Ronan

A major factor in the misleading of consumers is brands that are seen and appear to be 100% Irish to the average consumer. Brands like Denny, part of Kerry Group, have different ‘skews’ (hickory and non-hickory etc.) so one skew might be 100% Irish and compliant with the Bord Bia mark while another skew might not be and while technically, because of lack of legislation, they aren’t breaking the law they are misleading the consumer into a falsehood where the consumer presumes all Denny products are Irish. “It’s a vicious cycle, we have tried to get them to make it so Denny has to be 100% Irish or no Bord Bia logo but the counter claim is that they say at certain times of the year they can’t get enough product from the Irish guys.” Says Mr. O’Flaherty. But this again boils down to the fact that there are not enough pig producers in Ireland for production needs because they don’t get the funding required to build the industry and “with 60% of the pork produced in this country exported, it would be a huge gain for Ireland to fund more Irish pig farmers and there will be more exports and money coming into the country.” says Mr. O’Flaherty.

“Minister Coveney has said he will try to get the Department to exceed the EU rules, but the question is, how long will it take? Five years? Ten years. Sure it probably took close to 15 years for this legislation to come in. It’s difficult to see another opportunity to bring in more legislation so I don’t think it will ever come in.” says Mr. O’Flaherty.

All a consumer wants is to know exactly what they are buying and where it comes from. The labelling tactics that are used by some pig meat producers are wise enough to not break the law but are misleading the customer, so proper legislation, covering all pig meat products is required to stop this.