There's no beef with fast growing pig farmers
Sean Gallagher meets a visionary genius who is making the Full Irish taste even better
MICHAEL McAuliffe is the managing director of Truly Irish, a co-op based company, set up in 2009 by 85 pig farmers from all over the country.
A sizable pig farmer himself, I meet Michael on his farm in Castleisland. It's a cold morning in Kerry and we are joined, in his kitchen by the company's sales manager James Taylor, and Laura Edmonds, from their head office in Charleville, Co Cork. They have arrived to make sure that we start the day with a hearty Truly Irish breakfast.
Michael himself even dons an apron, proud to serve up the sausages and rashers of the brand he and his colleagues have created. As we tuck in, he explains how the company got started.
"Before the current crisis in the meat industry, food traceability emerged as a major issue after dioxins were found in some pig meat supplies in 2008," Michael explains.
Customers had also begun complaining about the amount of white residue left on the pan after frying bacon. It was obvious, at least to the farmers, that some processors were adding too much water to the product to give it an inflated weight, in an effort to boost their profits.
The farmers were annoyed, too, at how some pork products were being promoted as Irish, even though they were imported.
Determined to fight back, the farmers came together and, putting up €1.5m of their own money, they decided to launch their own brand.
"We felt that we needed to create an Irish brand which would give consumers confidence that the pork and bacon they were eating was of the highest quality and had, in fact, been produced here in Ireland," Michael explains.
"It's not only a brand but a guarantee of quality," he says. "A guarantee that, as farmers, we refuse to compromise on quality for profit."
The company developed a range of branded products including cured rashers, sausages, black and white puddings, gammon steaks, ham fillets and bacon joints.
"We strive to make our products healthy, low fat and nutritional. That's why we have at least 82 per cent lean pork content in our sausages," Michael explains.
"And our products are also free from MSG or monosodium glutamate," he adds.
Michael is grateful for the support the company has received from Irish retailers. Getting listed in stores is always a challenge for new food groups. However, Superquinn met them, liked their story and agreed to list them straight away. Today, their products are also available in Musgraves through the SuperValu and Centra brands, Dunnes Stores, Tesco, Londis and Spar.
When it came to developing their advertising campaign, they chose not to hire professional actors or brand ambassadors but instead to use real pig farmers in their ads.
"It was less about looking slick or professional and more about being authentic," stresses Michael.
Farmers and their families also undertook to do in-store tastings and promotions. Consumers welcomed the opportunity to speak directly with the farmers while the company benefited from valuable customer feedback, which led to the development of new products such as their range of gluten-free sausages.
The company has won eight Gold Star awards at the Great Taste Awards in the UK as well as winning at the Blas na hEireann Food Awards and receiving three Grand Awards of Excellence at the European Food Championships.
While the company employs 20 staff, Michael says that there are approximately 18,000 people employed, both directly and indirectly, in the industry nationally.
With breakfast complete, Michael takes me on a tour of his new purpose-built piggery. First I am shown the sow unit where the mothers are fed and cared for. This is important as the success of a pig farm relies on the number and size of the litters produced each year.
Next we visit the farrowing unit where the sows give birth. Here, they will stay with their young bonhams for approximately 28 days. The temperature is kept at an even 28C and the piglets even have heated floor mats to lie on.
Once weaned off their mothers, they are then moved to the next area, called the nursery. They will spend approximately eight weeks here while their mothers are returned to the sow unit.
In the nursery, the pigs are given footballs to play with. "In Kerry, even the pigs take football seriously," Michael jokes. The ball is used to help prevent boredom among the young animals.
Next it's on to the finishing unit where the pigs will spend their last few months until they have achieved their target weight of 100 kilos.
It's interesting to learn too, that throughout this entire process, the piglets are kept in the original family grouping into which they were born. "We keep them together," explains Michael, "because it makes for a more contented animal. Happy pigs make good pork," he says.
It's also good for business. Each sow has a small electronic device inserted in her ear. Using a hand-held device or personal digital assistant (PDA), the farmer has instant access to all the information relating to the individual animal, including her age, what vaccines, if any, she has received and when she is due to give birth.
Gone, too, are the days of carrying buckets of meal to the pigs. As each sow arrives at their feeding station, the ear device sends a signal to the central feeding unit which electronically dispatches only the correct amount of animal feed for the individual sow.
Sensors throughout the facility control the heating and ventilation systems and any sudden changes automatically generate an alert to Michael and his team via a text message.
Dozens of cameras monitor everything in the unit and are accessible to Michael wherever he is via his iPad or phone. It truly is a stat- of-the-art facility.
As I leave the piggery I notice speakers on the walls. It's not an alarm system but a music system. "It helps the pigs relax," Michael insists seriously.
Michael has been involved in the pig industry all his life. His father was a pig producer before him. It's in his blood. His father got into pigs in the Seventies because he simply couldn't make money from the land he was farming in Kerry.
He initially started out in the poultry industry. But when his poultry houses burned down, he was forced to spend the winter months working in sugar beet factories in the UK while Michael's mother stayed at home to look after the animals on the farm and to rear the couple's seven children
In 1992, Michael's father died at the age of 59. Michael was then 27, "thrown in at the deep end" as he explains it.
"It was sink or swim." He chose to swim.
Today Michael either owns or rents five separate pig farms where he produces more than 40,000 pigs each year.
In addition, he started his own successful haulage business, McAuliffe Trucking where he also sells and services DAF trucks. He employs about 40 staff between his farms and the transport company.
What's next for Truly Irish? "Breaking into the UK market is the next big challenge for the company," James explains. "The UK market for rashers and sausages alone is valued at €1.2bn per year."
The company's emphasis on DNA testing and its ability to trace all products to individual farms will be a key selling point for UK outlets who increasingly want confidence and certainty in their food supply chain.
At the end of our day together, James explains that Michael doesn't take a salary for his role as MD of Truly Irish. Michael says his priority is to ensure that the industry is protected for the next generation. He wants to leave a legacy.
I leave Truly Irish in Castleisland with a greater understanding of the pig industry and a deep respect for what Michael and the farmers of Truly Irish are trying to achieve.
They are working hard to run their own businesses. They are constantly trying to fight off competition from other countries while striving to embrace new technologies and new trends in their industry.
They are focusing on addressing the two big issues, of quality and value for money, that occupy the minds of a more informed and increasingly financially pressed consumer.
Instead of sitting back and complaining about the problem, they have chosen to be part of the solution. They clearly understand the saying that "the best way to predict the future is to create it".