Since the late 1990s there has been a significant fall-off in interest among Irish people Irish fruit and vegetable season from April to October, Keelings have said.
It has come as the companies decision to fly in 189 seasonal workers on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin during the Covid-19 pandemic sparked a torrent of online criticism.
On Tuesday, the Farming Independent reported that chartered flights could be used to transport up to 1,500 seasonal workers into Ireland to pick fruit and vegetables through the summer and early autumn.
Last night, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ordered an 'urgent review' of rules involving workers being flown into the country.
While, Keelings acknowledged that its communication to the public should have been both faster and more detailed during this Covid crisis it said flying in the workers was essential.
"Keelings has been growing and packing fruit and vegetables for the Irish market since the 1920s.
The business currently employs about 1,700 people in growing, harvesting, importing & packing fresh produce and in sales, distribution and management," it said.
"However, during the main Irish fruit and vegetable season from April to October, we employ temporary horticultural workers to harvest – about 900 over the season.
"This is demanding work requiring a high level of dexterity and product knowledge.
"Up until the late 1990’s, we recruited most of our seasonal workers locally, but over the last 20 years there has been less interest from Irish people in this work," it said.
For the past 20 years, most of the seasonal work has been done by experienced horticultural workers from other EU countries, often from Poland, Latvia and now from Bulgaria. They typically come to Ireland for six months, according to Keelings.
"This year we recruited in the usual manner over the winter and commenced our job offers at the end of October 2019.
"Like other businesses, we changed our plans and operations in response to the evolving COVID-19 crisis. As the pandemic crisis emerged we considered both local staff and international staff and made the decision that we most likely needed both to ensure we could continue to supply the Irish market.
"We have advertised locally over two weeks ago and up until last evening, we had 27 applications which falls significantly short of our labour needs. "Today we have received a further 13 applications so far. We hope to employ as many of these people as possible," it said.
Keelings said all workers are protected by local employment legislation up to and including EU working time directives and most of whom return each year.
On Monday, April 13, 189 seasonal workers flew on a charter flight from Sofia to Dublin.
"All had been health screened by a doctor before they travelled to Sofia airport where they were temperature checked before entry.
"Ryanair and Dublin Airport can confirm that all regulations were adhered to. They were taken straight to their housing," Keelings said in a statement.
Keelings also said that in accordance with HSE guidelines, they cannot work for 14 days after their arrival and their movements are restricted.
"We will take care of these colleagues as we take care of all of our people, permanent or temporary. They will be subject to further medical screening before they start work at Keelings. We will continue to consult with the HSE and other appropriate agencies to ensure both our staff and the communities they live in remain safe.
"As part of Ireland’s essential food supply chain, our role is to provide good, healthy and affordable food to the people of Ireland, produced sustainably and safely," it said.