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Half of nation's food bill goes on imported goods


Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

Photo: Thinkstock

MANY Irish favourites on the supermarket shelves are shipped from abroad, as our "food island" chomps its way through €5bn of imports each year.

Detailed figures obtained by the Irish Independent reveal the scale of food imports -- including many household favourites consumers assume are homegrown.

From Lyons teabags to HB ice-cream, Siucra and Kimberley biscuits to vast quantities of milk, beef, chicken and potatoes, some 3.5 million tonnes of the food we consume each year originates somewhere else.

Central Statistics Office figures show importers are bringing in €5bn worth of foreign food and drink each year.

That's the wholesale price paid for imported products.

With retail mark-ups and tax, the actual amount spent by shoppers on these foreign foodstuffs could be as much as €8bn -- half the annual €16bn consumer spend on food and drink.

Imports include €799m worth of cereals, €958m worth of fruit and veg, €282m worth of poultry and €711m worth of drinks -- again that's only at wholesale prices.

Some imports are down to our poor weather -- we obviously can't produce coffee, cocoa or oranges. The total also includes €619m of animal feed and some food that is processed and re-exported.

However, other imports are due to political decisions -- such as the ending of Irish sugar production. Siucra is now made by Nordzucker in Germany.

But while Ireland is one of the biggest beef and milk exporters, it doesn't stop us buying in €157m worth of beef and €478m worth of dairy products. Even when it comes to the potato, we are shipping in a staggering 124,250 tonnes of them, some €75m worth.

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While some of that is frozen chips -- our climate means Irish potatoes aren't dry enough to make good ones -- the Irish Farmers Association say we should not be shipping in so many spuds.

Clever marketing such as "Ireland's favourite" can obscure the fact that an item is imported.

Kieran Rumley, executive director of Love Irish Food which promotes products made in Ireland, said: "We estimate that if every household switched just two items a week to Irish product it would be worth €300m to the economy."

But food industry consultant Ciaran Fitzgerald said the main reason for imports was down to price.

Consumer appetite for prime cuts like chicken breasts have also led to claims we couldn't produce enough white meat domestically to satisfy demand.

While nearly all the fresh whole chickens sold in supermarkets are Irish, once you go to catering level at the sandwich bar or café, nearly all of it is cheaper imports, often from Brazil and Thailand, he said.

Supermarkets and multinational food companies such as Unilever consolidate their buying and processing networks in countries like the UK.

But Malachy McCloskey, chairman of the Boyne Valley Group, said he is hopeful of bringing some brands back into production in Ireland.

Having recently purchased Erin Foods, Chivers Jams, Gateaux cakes and McDonnells from Premier Foods in the UK, the company was "actively looking" at bringing one of these brands home by September and a second before Christmas.

"In the meantime, the profits will be coming back to Ireland for the first time in years and we hope to bring as much of the production as possible back to create jobs at home," he said.

As for Boyne Valley Honey, he said the company was upfront about the fact most of it was imported from Europe and South America because of the wet climate, lack of beekeepers and demise of Irish bees.

"We're just about to start our own apiary to see if we can produce more of our own," he said.

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