Where your full Irish really comes from
There is little clarity about the origin of so-called Irish pigmeat – labels such as ‘produced in Ireland’ and ‘traditional Irish sausage’ are no guarantee that the meat is Irish
Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
It ’s a topic that can be as hot as politics or religion. What is an Irish breakfast? Does it involve beans or mushrooms? Are you an egg man or woman? Do you grill or fry?
For Kanturk butcher Tim McCarthy, it has to be black and white pudding, two rashers, two sausages and batch toast. One thing is clear: pieces of hot salty pig are at the heart of the whole enterprise.
Lately, however, the very Irishness of the Irish breakfast has been called into question. Since earlier this year, scientists have been looking closely at the heart of the Irish morning ritual, all those sausages and rashers. In Dublin’s Trinity Enterprise Centre a key question is being quietly answered by a specially designed computer: How Irish are they at all?
The IdentiGen computer in Trinity is running a regular DNA match on sausages and rashers that appear to the consumer to be “Irish”. So far they’ve found that not all of the pigmeat in apparently Irish sausages and bacon is Irish.
The Irish Farmers’ Association is sending roughly 100 samples a month to identify genuine Irish meat behind those Irish-sounding labels. It knows who has been using poetic licence with the word “Irish”, according IFA pig chairman Pat O’Flaherty. So far it is not accusing anyone of telling porkies; instead the association is attempting to work with food companies to try and get more Irish meat into Irish sausages and rashers.
It is not immediately obvious when you pick up a packet where a lot of pigmeat comes from. Phrases like “produced in Ireland” or “traditional Irish sausage” may not mean that the meat in the package is from an Irish pig. Parents lovingly wrapping well-known brands for emigrant children might not be so misty-eyed if they realised they were sending German bacon or a mixture of Dutch and Danish sausage.
Much of the bacon, ham and sausage meat sold in Ireland is a mystery to the consumer, yet food companies know exactly where they are sourcing it. The Government licenses the meat importation, but the consumer gets no information on the country of origin. A 2008 Safe Food report stated that a third of pigmeat consumed in Ireland is imported. As the number of Irish pig farmers falls, that proportion will only increase.
A question for Kerry Group
Kerry Group owns the two best-known Irish breakfast brands, Denny and Galtee, so we asked them how much of their range was made with non-Irish meat. It’s too complex and commercially sensitive, says spokesman Frank Hayes. “The vast majority of our pigmeat products are sourced in Ireland.”
Only the products carrying the Bord Bia Origin-Ireland stamp are produced entirely from Irish meat, he adds.
Denny might say that it’s “the taste of home” but without the green, white and orange Bord Bia stamp alongside, that is simply a marketing slogan.
The global pigmeat market is head-spinningly complex, and involves parts of pigs passing each other at the ports in the import-export trade. Different countries like different parts of the pig, O’Flaherty explains. The back and legs of Irish pigs are sold in Ireland, where the pork loin (or the area at the top of the rib cage) becomes bacon and the legs become hams.
Kerry Group is the biggest buyer of meat from Ireland’s 350 pig farmers, Hayes adds, but there aren’t enough legs and loins being produced in Ireland to supply their output, both domestic and for export, in a competitive market, so the company sources Danish and Dutch bacon from “audited EU producers”. And the Irish farmers?
“We are working with them to increase the level of Irish-produced pigmeat within the system.”
Under European labelling law, country of origin is mandatory for beef, fish, olive oil, honey and fresh fruit and vegetables. Next month the EU will make it law to specify country of origin for the meat of pigs, chicken, sheep and goats, with a lead-in time of anywhere up to three years for food companies to comply.
The pork rule, however, will only apply to fresh pork and not to processed meat, so consumers still won’t get a country-of-origin label on rashers, sausages or ham. In the meantime, the Bord Bia Origin-Ireland stamp is a guarantee that your Irish breakfast ingredients are indeed Irish.
A spokeswoman for the Irish Food Safety Authority says the labelling legislation outlaws a producer selling something as Irish when it isn’t. However, words such as “local” and “artisan” can be used without any real meaning attached to them, as they are outside the legislation. The spokeswoman adds that, in light of the horsemeat scandal, the European Commission is “in discussion” over extending country-of-origin regulations to processed meats.
It’s not just sausages and rashers that can fail the 100 per cent Irish test. Famous Clonakilty black pudding is currently being made with imported beef blood from the Netherlands, according to Clonakilty Blackpudding Company production manager John Gallagher. He says the Dutch blood makes up 5 per cent of a Clonakilty black pudding, with the remainder of the ingredients sourced in Ireland.
The company is working with an Irish supplier to try to source an Irish liquid blood supply for its product. As for eggs, the scrambled variety served in restaurants and hotels are typically made with pasteurised bottled eggs – one of the largest plants is in Lisnaskea in Northern Ireland.
Kanturk butcher Tim McCarthy’s supply chain is not complex or commercially sensitive. The meat in McCarthy’s shop comes from “100 per cent Irish and local” outdoor-reared pigs. He uses fresh pigs’ blood, local oatmeal and herbs for black pudding and less water in his sausages and bacon than larger processors.
Away from local butchers using local ingredients, supermarket shoppers face a complicated system of international pigmeat trading and marketing claims. Unless country-of-origin labelling becomes law, the unstamped meat remains a mystery to those of us eating it.
The Irish Times Food Month is taking place throughout November. You will find food-related content in all of our sections, from Business and Sports to here in Life. We will also have reader events, competitions and lots of exclusive online content at irishtimes.com