TESCO last night insisted it was the world's "biggest supporter" of Irish food and drink producers after a group of farmers stormed a meeting of the supermarket chain's top managers yesterday.
Around 30 potato growers burst into a meeting at a Co Meath hotel, attended by Tesco chief executive Sir Terry Leahy and 200 managers, to demand that the UK retail giant stops selling British potatoes at its Irish stores.
The farmers brandished bags of imported Desiree potatoes, which they claimed are displacing Irish potatoes on Tesco shelves around the country.
They said farmers were "boiling over" with anger over Tesco's move to increase imports at the expense of Irish produce, and that this type of protest was "the only avenue open to us to protect jobs on this island".
The potatoes being sold were identical to Irish roosters that were plentiful in the Republic at this time, and there was no need for them to be imported, they said.
They demanded to speak with Mr Leahy, but were instead offered a meeting with Tesco Ireland management today, which they declined.
Tesco, which was holding its annual meeting of store and company managers, had its own security present, but gardai were called to the scene by management at the Marriott Ashbourne Hotel and the protesters agreed to leave peacefully.
Hotel general manager Gabriel Molari said they had called gardai because they were concerned the situation might escalate.
Some damage was done to a door handle but the person concerned had agreed to pay for its repair, and no charges would follow, he said.
Irish Farmers' Association president Padraig Walshe said he was not surprised by the potato growers' action on the ground as it reflected deep anger about Tesco's decision to displace local produce with imports. "Growers cannot stay in business because of Tesco's ruthless pursuit of profit and market share. The persistent pressure on the price paid to the producer will inevitably lead to thousands of job losses and will put Irish producers of local, fresh produce out of business," he said.
The protesters were mainly from the north Dublin/Meath area but some had travelled from as far away as Donegal.
Tesco Ireland said in a statement that it was "very proud of the contribution it makes to Irish agriculture and continues to be the world's biggest supporter of Irish food and drink producers, purchasing €2bn worth of Irish food products annually.
"The company's stores outside of Ireland are the second biggest buyers in the world of Irish food and drink, making the Tesco group a bigger purchaser of Irish food and drink than a number of countries including France, Germany, the United States and others."
In total, Tesco is worth €2.5bn a year to the Irish economy and supports 27,000 jobs directly and indirectly.