Not the full Irish - Katy McGuinness explores the true origins of 'Irish' foods
Weekend food writer Katy McGuinness caught the nation's attention when she highlighted that chicken marked 'made in Co Wicklow' in fact came from Holland. Here, she explores the true origins of some 'Irish' poultry, pork, fish and honey…
It all started with a packet of sliced chicken… Last autumn, in the course of researching an article that I was writing about food labelling in Ireland, I paid a visit to my local supermarket looking for examples of packaging that I felt might be misleading to consumers.
One of the packets that caught my eye was one of Henry Denny & Sons Slow Cooked Chicken, four slices of cooked, roasted and sliced formed chicken breast.
The writing on the front said 'Made In Co. Wicklow'; the colours used were green, orange and white. On the back of the packet, the first listed ingredient was 'Chicken Breast (95pc)'. The packet did not specify the origin of the chicken but noted that one could "Visit denny.ie for our Sourcing Policy."
I scoured denny.ie but was unable to find any sourcing information. So, I emailed the company, part of Kerry Foods, via the customer contact form on its website, asking where the chicken in this product came from. And a few days later the answer came back: Brazil.
I was, to use a technical term, gobsmacked.
I included this information in an article that I wrote back in November 2018 and heard nothing further about it from Denny.
And while there was a modest level of response to the article, it didn't garner a huge amount of attention. Perhaps everyone already knew that slices of chicken 'Made in Co Wicklow' were not made from Irish chicken and I was the last person to realise?
Fast forward to January 25 this year when, in response to a tweet from someone about food labelling, I tweeted a photo of the Slow Cooked Chicken packaging with the comment: "No mention of where the chicken 'Made in Co. Wicklow' in this package comes from. I asked Denny and they told me Brazil."
This time it went viral, with hundreds of retweets and comments. And then, journalist Margaret Donnelly picked up the story on the Irish Independent's farming website, FarmIreland.ie, and soon everyone was talking about it.
It turned out that I hadn't been the last person to realise that 'Made in Wicklow' on the packaging has nothing to do with the origin of the ingredients inside but is justified under current rules and regulations by virtue of the meat having gone through a 'transformative process' here in Ireland.
Consumers were shocked by what they felt was the betrayal of their trust by one of the best-known brands in Ireland, and farmers protested outside the Kerry Foods plant in Wicklow.
Subsequent to my tweet, somebody from Denny's PR company had contacted me to say that the initial information that I had been given was wrong, and that the chicken in this instance in fact came from Holland.
The story was picked up on radio and television, and I was interviewed on a few different programmes. One of these was the Joe Finnegan Show on Shannonside Northern Sound; Vincent Carton of Manor Farm Chickens was also a guest.
The Economics of Chicken
Afterwards, he offered to explain to me something of the economics of the chicken business, so that I could understand what might have led to Denny writing 'Made in Co. Wicklow' on a packet of sliced formed chicken breasts produced using chicken from Holland. This is what he told me:
"Chicken is a global commodity market. It's worth taking a look at the current wholesale prices of chicken fillets. Frozen Brazilian fillets cost €2.50/kg, Thai cooked cost €4, Dutch fresh between €3.80 and €4.50, and Irish fresh between €6 and €7.30. The smaller the fillets, the more expensive they are. The pricing has very little to do with the cost of production - such as how the birds are kept and what they are fed - and more to do with the organisation of the business.
"Chicken has a seven-day shelf life. It is actually safe for 10 days if kept in optimal conditions but because of what's known in the trade as 'temperature abuse', when shoppers buy the chicken in the morning and leave it in the boot of the car for the day, the 'best before' date is given as seven rather than 10 days.
"Chicken producers run to a 13-week programme; the time it takes from buying the egg, to bringing it to the hatchery, and then to the farm and raising it to full size takes 13 weeks. Most chicken businesses run a surplus of between 3-4pc. At Manor Farm, we can have six million birds at various stages at any one time.
Keep it Moving
"The business is all about keeping it moving. If you have a surplus, then you have to move it to export, and if you freeze it the price drops immediately by 60-70pc compared to the fresh bird. Right across Europe, chicken producers are running at a slight surplus, all the time.
"In Eastern Europe the demand for legs and wings is greater, so the prices for those are higher than they are in Ireland, where the demand is for fillets. A producer in Hungary or Romania, for instance, will remove the legs and wings and sell them in Eastern Europe, and send the 'caps' (the breasts on the carcass) to Holland, which is the depository of all surpluses. At the cutting houses there, the caps from different sources are mixed up and the fillets graded by size. Germany, the UK and Ireland are the main markets for fillets.
"By the time that the fillets get here, it might be day six. They are gas flushed with an inert gas, usually nitrogen or carbon dioxide, to extend their shelf life by eliminating oxygen from the packaging. They are sold in boxes of two trays, with 25 fillets in a tray. A large number of these go to butchers' shops, where they are sold loose. In a butcher's shop, any piece of chicken sold on the bone is Irish, as it's too heavy to transport economically, but very often the fillets are from one of these Dutch cutting houses. Under EU legislation, if it's packed and labelled it must follow the law and indicate where it's from (see page 16), but chicken fillets sold loose do not need to show this information.
"Currently most of what's in Ireland is Dutch fillet, but the market changes. Frozen chicken from Brazil is currently very cheap. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) says that Irish consumers are worried about salmonella, and that they want to know the source of raw chicken, but that once the chicken is cooked they don't care."
Given that insight, from someone who knows the chicken business inside out, where do you think that the chicken in the chicken fillet rolls that you pick up for lunch when you have a hangover, or allow your children to get as a Friday treat, comes from?
Less than 200 pig farmers
But it's not just when it comes to chicken that there's confusion as to the origin of the food that we eat.
Shane McAuliffe is a commercial pig farmer with four farms in Castleisland, Co Kerry. He currently has 2,000 breeding sows. I asked him about the pork that's for sale in Irish supermarkets, butchers' shops and in the food service industry.
"In 2008, during the pork dioxin crisis, all Irish pig-meat was taken off the shelves and it became apparent that some very well-known brands that were perceived as Irish were not gone from the shelves, so they were revealed to be using non-Irish pork. Pork from other countries is cheaper, because Ireland is an island and it's expensive to import feed. Last year was the worst year ever in pig production in Ireland, as there was an oversupply on the world market. Farmers were getting €1.40 a kg for pig-meat that cost €1.60 to produce. There are fewer than 200 pig farmers left in Ireland and it is hard for our voice to be heard.
"In the supermarkets now, it's all about the Bord Bia logo. If the Quality Assured logo is on a pork product, then the consumer knows that it's made with Irish pork. But consumers need to be aware that companies, including some major Irish brands, opt in and out of the Bord Bia logo. Sometimes if there is a special offer on, the Bord Bia logo disappears off the packet of bacon that might have had it on the previous week. That can be confusing for customers.
"The Truly Irish brand is another that puts local pig farmers on the label of the products. A couple of years ago all the supermarkets started putting the faces of farmers in their ads, because they know that Irish is a big consideration for shoppers."
As with the Denny chicken slices, that packaging complied with current labelling rules. But consumers would have had a reasonable expectation that the pork products for sale would have originated in Ireland, when they did not.
"Lack of transparency used to be a big problem in the pig industry," says McAuliffe, "but now the DNA of every boar in the country is on a database.
The IFA inspectors can sample meat or pork products anywhere and verify whether they are Irish or not. The inspectors came down hard on butchers and they have now cleaned up their act, although at Christmas-time the market was flooded with Danish hams."
John Hickey, CEO of the Association of Craft Butchers in Ireland, refutes this: "I didn't hear anything about Danish ham before Christmas, very few of our members would be big enough to import directly." He says that the labelling rules are straightforward.
"If meat is unprocessed its country of origin must be labelled clearly to the customer. When processed the same stipulations don't apply. When we audit our members we insist on full transparency and the FSAI inspectors have upskilled so there is now very stringent enforceability. Butchers are the last honest brokers in the meat trade."
Butchers may have enhanced transparency, but McAuliffe says that, when it comes to stating the origin of pork products, the food service industry - hotels, cafés and restaurants - is still "quite bad", to the extent that the Full Irish on offer in many Irish establishments, who buy catering packs of rashers and sausages in bulk from suppliers catering to the food service industry, should properly be called the Full Danish.
"It's a question of buyer beware," says McAuliffe. Imported bacon, sausage and ham are rife, but the IFA inspectors are planning to focus on the food service industry this year."
Pallas is the largest wholesale food supplier and distributor to the food service industry in the country but declined, via its PR representative, to put forward a spokesperson to be interviewed for this article.
If Irish consumers didn't have enough to be worrying about trying to figure out where their chicken and pork comes from, the waters are murky when it comes to fish too. These days salmon is a ubiquitous, cheap food with perceived health-giving properties. But all salmon farmed in Ireland is now organic, and it's an expensive, premium product.
The salmon that you see in the supermarkets, where you will find a whole fish for less than the price of a bottle of wine, is imported, usually from Scotland, Norway or the Faroe Islands.
Farmed salmon is a controversial product; opponents of the industry blame it for pollution and for the decline in the whale population in Antarctica, as vast quantities of small fish used to make pellets of salmon food used to make up the bulk of the whales' diet. Organic salmon, which is raised in open mesh pens at sea off the West Coast of Ireland, is reared at lower density than conventional farmed salmon but otherwise by similar methods.
Wholesaler Niall Sabongi, of Sustainable Seafood Ireland, cautions that because Irish organic salmon is so expensive, 90pc of the fish that's on offer in shops and restaurants is not Irish. For example, in my local supermarket, the packets of salmon darnes from Keohane's of Bantry confirms that the fish inside comes from either Scotland, Norway, the Faroe islands or Iceland; the last letter of the batch code confirming the precise origin.
Given that all Irish salmon is now farmed organically, smoked salmon for sale in the shops and supermarkets will also be organic if it is Irish. If it's not stated to be Irish, then consumers need to read the label carefully.
Well-known Irish smoked salmon brands, such as Union Hall, from Cork, use fish from Scotland, even though the company's website says that: "By sourcing only the finest quality fish directly from the West coast of Ireland, fresh quality produce is guaranteed."
"Our website is not up to date, in that we used to source all our fish from Irish fish farms but now that they are all organic, we source our conventional salmon from Scotland," Sean Cahalane, General Manager at Union Hall said.
"We still smoke Irish organic salmon, but it can be difficult to get. There is a massive price difference, at retail the organic Irish smoked salmon sells for €50-60 per kg, while the conventional Scottish smoked sells for €35-40 per kg; it's more expensive the smaller the packet. On our website, the conventional is €26kg.
Asked why Union Hall's packaging bears the words "a taste of West Cork" on Scottish salmon, Sean said: "That is a logo that came out of work with the West Cork LEADER programme and we have kept it on all our products. I don't think customers are confused, they know that a high percentage of smoked salmon comes from Scotland."
Fresh Irish Hake?
Nick Lynch of Nick's Fish in Ashbourne, Co Meath, admits to being obsessed with the labelling of fish for sale in Ireland.
"If you see a packet of fish in your local supermarket with a tricolour on the packet and a label that says that it's hake that's been caught in the South East Atlantic, most people visualise that as being somewhere off the coast of Ireland, near Wexford perhaps, when in fact that fishing area starts at the Congo Delta and goes down the coast of Africa to the Cape and Durban.
"This is a different species of fish to Irish hake, and the one caught off the coast of Namibia is massively cheaper and doesn't taste the same, because it feeds on very oily, pilchard-like fish. There's nothing wrong with the fish, it's perfectly good and it's edible, but customers believe that they are getting fresh Irish hake when they are not."
Another issue for Nick Lynch is the perception on the part of the consumer that fish that they buy thinking that it is fresh is actually defrosted. "You almost have to be in the industry to understand what you're looking for," he says.
Thawed in Ireland
"If you see 'produce of Ireland' and an Irish flag on a package, that forms your opinion. The EU plant number tells you where it was packed, but under current legislation 'producing' can mean thawing; the legislation refers to 'substantive transformation', which makes a product that originated elsewhere a product of Ireland. If fish is coming all the way from southern Africa, then it's been frozen and defrosted.
"It's very difficult for the ordinary consumer to know what they are buying," Lynch continues. "Fishmongers are generally reliable, and they are obliged to say if fish has been defrosted. But you'll also find some fishmongers purporting to sell organic salmon for €2 more per kilo than conventional salmon - that's not possible at that price."
Honey is another product on the supermarket shelves that consumers could be forgiven for thinking is Irish when it isn't. "We have a major problem here," says Eleanor Attridge, bee health officer with the Federation of Irish Bee Keepers, "it's called weather. Honey is totally weather-dependent. The bulk of bee-keepers are hobbyists and they can't guarantee supply to the supermarkets; there simply isn't enough Irish honey around, so the bulk of what you see in the shops is imported."
As a consumer, I would have thought that Kilcree Gold Organic Honey, for instance, is an Irish honey, thanks to the name (which sounds like Kilcrea in Cork) and packaging livery. But a closer examination of the ingredients shows that it is a blend of EU and non-EU honey, and Eleanor Attridge tells me that Irish honey can't be certified organic anyway, because it's not possible to control where the bees fly, and they can fly up to a three-mile radius from the hive.
One sure-fire way of telling whether your honey is Irish or not is the price. Irish honey retails for between €6 and €10 per jar; imported honey for much less.
Pat Cussen, sales manager with Cork brand Healy's Honey confirms that only a very small percentage of the company's business involves selling Irish honey - not that that would be immediately obvious from a casual glance at the packaging, which references the Healy family's history as generations of beekeepers.
"We are proud to be an Irish company, and we re-branded two years ago with the input of Bord Bia and focus groups," Pat says when asked about the packaging. "Yes, we are playing on our Irish-ness; we are properly licenced and regulated as a packer and our packaging complies with all the rules.
"Our Irish honey comes from the East Coast predominantly, from beekeepers with whom we have established relationships. We do keep a small number of hives ourselves, but we don't manage them, we are not beekeepers any more. Unfortunately, there simply is not enough Irish honey to meet demand. We'd like a hundred times more, and what there is is expensive. We import from Argentina and Brazil, where it's available all year round."
Sometimes the word 'provenance' is bandied around by chefs and food writers (guilty!) writing about restaurants with a strong ethos of sourcing local ingredients, but really all it means is knowing where your food comes from and something about how it was produced.
This is information to which every Irish consumer should surely have a right, so that they can make informed purchasing decisions and be able to compare similar products.
Of course, buying Irish is not a priority for every consumer. Many are motivated simply by price. But for those who are, they should be able to rely on supermarkets and Irish brands to make it easy for them to understand exactly where their food is coming from. In the meantime, savvy shoppers will bring their reading glasses when they go shopping and look beyond the flags and shamrocks to the small print.
Labelling: The rules
This is what the Food Safety Authority of Ireland told us about the rules and regulations regarding food labelling and some changes that will be implemented next year.
"Under EU legislation, country-of-origin labelling is mandatory for some pre-packed products. These are generally unprocessed raw products and include beef, pork, lamb/mutton, goatmeat, poultry-meat, fruit and vegetables, fish and olive oil. Once these products are processed, then the "product-specific rules" will not apply and the products fall under 'general rules'. Under the general rules, origin indication is not mandatory, but in certain cases, depending on the presentation of information on the label, origin indication may be required.
"Generally, for origin-labelling, the rules are determined by the format that the food is presented to the consumer: is it meat or a food in which meat is an ingredient? In the case of the rules on poultry-meat, for example, if the product is a pre-packed raw chicken breast then the specific rules that exist for poultry-meat will apply, and the label must indicate where the bird was reared and slaughtered.
"The food business can indicate 'origin' followed by the name of a particular country in place of these two indications if the bird has been born, raised and slaughtered in one Member State. Now, if that chicken breast is used as an ingredient in another product, then it is no longer chicken breast but a product that contains chicken breast as an ingredient, and its origin is determined by the EU Customs rules. As a processed product can contain a number of different ingredients, the customs rules state that origin is determined as follows:
· Goods wholly obtained in a single country or territory are regarded as having their origin in that country or territory
· Goods, the production of which involves more than one country or territory, are deemed to originate in the country or territory where they underwent their last, substantial, economically-justified processing or working, in an undertaking equipped for that purpose, resulting in the manufacture of a new product or representing an important stage of manufacture
"In general, 'last substantial transformation' is determined in three ways:
· By a change of tariff
· By undergoing a manufacturing or processing operation that is listed in the customs rules as a process that confers on the goods the origin of the country in which these operations were carried out
· By a value added rule
"So, a product could be determined under EU legislation as originating from a particular country if it underwent substantial transformation in that country.
"However, we recognise that for most consumers when they see origin indicated on a product, particularly one that contains meat, they assume that the indication refers to the meat ingredient and not to the product itself. The EU has also acknowledged this and has introduced new rules which will apply from 1st April 2020. Under these rules, if a label states that the product comes from a particular location, or uses graphics implying the product is from a particular country, then they will have to indicate where the principal ingredient came from. So in the case of a product that contains chicken and states "made in Ireland", but the chicken came from a country other than Ireland, then the food business will have to:
(a) Indicate the country of origin or place of provenance of the primary ingredient in question; or
(b) Indicate that the country of origin or place of provenance of the primary ingredient is different to that of the food."
Bord Bia Quality Mark
Bord Bia is the State Agency that promotes sales of Irish food and horticulture. We asked Bord Bia to explain what its Quality Mark means.
"The Bord Bia Quality Mark is the symbol used to indicate certification under Bord Bia's Quality Assurance Scheme. Where you see Bord Bia Quality Mark on a product it means that it has been produced to the highest standards which have been verified at every stage.
"Secondly, the flag and the 'Origin Ireland' on the mark verify that the product was produced in Ireland - where you see this mark it means that the food was farmed and processed in the Republic of Ireland.
"In the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Schemes, all steps in the food chain from production to final packaging for sale to the end user are Quality Assured; these include the farm or growing unit, the meat factory or packing centre and any secondary processing food factory (smoking, curing, cooking etc). Independent auditors monitor farms and processing facilities at regular intervals to ensure compliance and, following certification, the Quality Mark can then be used on a product. Currently over 51,000 farmers and over 92 food processors and packers are members of the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Programme.
"Products carrying the Bord Bia Quality Mark include pre-packaged meat such as pre-packed beef, lamb, pork, bacon, cooked ham, rashers, turkey, chicken, duck, sausages and burgers. It is also used on eggs, fruit, vegetables and potatoes. The use of the Bord Bia Quality Mark is not obligatory for members of Bord Bia's Quality Assurance Schemes (QAS). However, they may use the logos for promotion and marketing purposes in accordance with the conditions set out by Bord Bia."
⬤ Guaranteed Irish is an Irish non-profit business membership organisation representing indigenous and international businesses operating in Ireland.
⬤ The Guaranteed Irish symbol is awarded to companies which create "quality" jobs, contribute to local communities and are "committed to Irish provenance". To bear the symbol, the item must be produced in Ireland, with the primary ingredients coming from Ireland.
⬤ Chief Executive Brid O'Connell says that Guaranteed Irish is all about integrity and trust. "The mark space is cluttered with symbols, but Guaranteed Irish is the only symbol with a full dedicated appraisals board. You have to earn the value and the right to become a member."
She adds: "When it comes to food, each individual product has to apply for a separate licence.
The only product that Kerry Group currently has a licence for is its Dairygold spread."
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