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.