End of the road for Irish chicken?

 

When was the last time you ate an Irish-produced chicken? Or do you know? The low-priced meat most of us buy – especially in restaurants and cafes – is often of mysterious origin and quality, writes SUZANNE CAMPBELL

CHICKEN IS THE MOST popular meat in Ireland, and on average each of us eats about 30kg of it in a year. But while we tuck into our lunchtime chicken-pesto wrap, we’re usually unaware that the meat inside is most likely to have come from Thailand or Eastern Europe.

Our love of a bargain has pushed imports of chicken sky high, with about 200 million imported fillets entering the Republic of Ireland yearly (this includes chicken from Northern Ireland). And while the amount of chicken we eat is rising, the price is falling, making it hard for Irish farmers to stay in business.

Under current food-labelling laws, it’s also impossible to know where much of our chicken is coming from. Irish farmers say this raises questions about the quality of what we’re eating.

In recent months, high levels of imports coupled with the rising cost of animal feed have increased pressure on Irish chicken farmers, who get as little as 58 cent for each chicken they farm.

Cavan farmer Alo Mohan feels that while the supermarkets slash prices on chicken to bring consumers in the door, it’s leaving farmers hanging on a knife edge. “The problem is that the price of animal feed has risen and many chicken farmers are now working at a loss,” he says. The Irish Farmers’ Association estimates that poultry farmers get less than 10 per cent of the retail value of a whole chicken, the processor gets 35-40 per cent and the retailer typically comes away with more than 50 per cent of the retail price.

It’s this slim margin for farmers that is having an effect on the immediate future of Irish poultry and the 2,500 jobs in the sector here. “I have farmers I’ve helped arrange credit for as they are under severe pressure, and when they hear the figures that supermarkets are taking out of this country, it sticks in the back of their throat. They are milking us out of it,” says Mohan.

David Owens from Bord Bia says: “There is pressure definitely at the moment; chicken is the most discounted of all meats. Supermarkets use it as a promotional tool and a loss leader to sell other goods. Unlike other meats, chicken has risen in volume of sales but at the same time, it’s falling in price.”

In the past 10 years, three chicken processors in the Republic have closed, and for the farmers that raise birds for the remaining five plants, it’s a difficult time.

Two years ago, Cappoquin Poultry in Waterford survived closure after new investors stepped in.

Ned Morrissey produces broiler chickens for the Cappoquin plant, which has now cut its output of chicken by a quarter. “When animal feed prices rocketed a few weeks back, the processors went to the supermarkets for a price increase but they wouldn’t help us out. Now people at the plant are working part time in order to keep their jobs. There’s 160 jobs at the factory alone and it’s critical for west Waterford that this business survives.”

At the Cappoquin plant, financial controller Tom Vaughan admits it’s a tough time for processors and farmers alike. “Animal feed went up from €270 a tonne last year to €370 a tonne now, while the supermarkets are selling chicken cheaper and cheaper. If the consumers were prepared to pay an extra euro on whole chickens, it would sort it all out.”

Some, such as Superquinn and the Supervalu group, source almost all their chicken from the Republic of Ireland. In the case of Tesco, almost 70 per cent of its chicken is from Northern Irish plants owned by the giant Brazilian meatpacker Marfrig, which recently bought the Moy Park and O’Kane poultry brands.

“We met with Tesco to try and get them to sell more chicken from [the Republic] – if they bought all their chicken from the Republic it would mean 1,000 or more jobs but they said they don’t distinguish between the Republic and the North,” says Alo Mohan.

According to Tesco: “All of our fresh poultry is sourced from two suppliers on the island of Ireland, supporting over 5,000 jobs.”

HOWEVER, CONSUMERS may at least take comfort from the fact that Moy Park chicken from Tesco is quality assured by Bord Bia.

For shoppers, Bord Bia Quality Assured Chicken is easily identified on packaging, with either a Northern Ireland or Republic of Ireland sticker.

However, the situation can be unclear with loose chicken fillets sold by independent butchers or other retailers. These fillets are often imported but give no information to the consumer on where they are from.

According to the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), failure to label this chicken leaves consumers unaware about some of its qualities as imported poultry is often flushed with carbon dioxide, which artificially extends the shelf life of the meat.

In December last year, the FSAI issued the results of a survey into the quality of raw chicken sold loose in butchers: 8 per cent did not provide a sell-by date and at least 23 per cent of butchers provided a use-by date that was unrealistically long for the product to remain unspoiled in the consumer’s fridge.

John Hickey from the Association of Craft Butchers of Ireland says his organisation cannot vouch for the safety of chicken on supermarket butcher counters or in independent retailers. “We are frequently audited by the Department of Agriculture to show the sources of our product. There should be tracability for the consumer and we have systems in place for our members but not all of them are at this point.”

The other big threat to the future of Irish chicken is in restaurant kitchens. David Owens of Bord Bia points out that “over 90 per cent of chicken used in restaurants, sandwich bars, work canteens and the like is imported”.

Once this chicken arrives in the EU and goes through any kind of processing, it is labelled on the packaging as “EU product”, though much of it is from outside the EU.

Chicken sold loose in restaurants or sandwich bars is rarely labelled. When it appears on a food counter or restaurant menu, consumers are often unaware of where it has come from – by comparison, the country of origin for beef has to be listed by law.

Dr Alan Reilly of the FSAI knows the situation only too well. “If you walk by a sandwich bar early in the morning you’ll see the boxes arriving in from Thailand – they have Thai processing plant stamps on them.”

There may be nothing wrong with Thai chicken, but the distance it has to travel can cause problems, according to Reilly. “First of all, [Irish chicken is] going to be fresher. The longer the food chain, the more things that can go wrong; if you have a commodity travelling through several countries and value being added in each country, by the time it gets to the consumer the risk is increased.”

You don’t have to travel as far away as Asia to encounter problems in the food chain. Recent Dutch research shows that some antibiotic-resistant “superbugs” found in humans may be obtained directly or indirectly from chicken meat. Dutch meat has been found to have more antibiotic residue than anywhere else in Europe, prompting Roel Coutinho, director of the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and Environment, to warn “the use of antibiotics in the poultry sector must be strongly reduced”.

A recent league table of antibiotic use in livestock saw the Netherlands topping the list of European countries, according to the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy.

Farmer Alo Mohan says that the requirement for Irish farmers to operate to stringent food-safety standards is frustrating, when some imports may not meet the same standards.

“In Ireland there are high standards for stocking levels in sheds, animal welfare and slaughter of birds. We only give antibiotics if a post mortem on an animal points to an infection in the flock. But the food-service sector here buys foreign chicken, and we don’t know what goes on outside Ireland.”

WITH CONSUMERS wanting a bargain and businesses under pressure, why should restaurant owners pay more for Irish chicken over cheap imports? Jo Macken, the man behind Dublin’s Jo’Burger restaurant and pop-up chicken venture Crack Bird, says that sourcing foreign chicken is a false economy. “It’s two-pronged for us; we want to support Irish food and we also want quality. I don’t know what’s in some foreign chicken so I’d rather get it from Cootehill in Cavan and support Irish jobs. It’s part of the way we run our business.”

Vincent Carton, who owns the Manor Farm brand, employs 700 people and has 150 farmer suppliers. He feels that consumers wouldn’t eat imported chicken if they knew where it was from. “Twenty years ago Ireland supplied 100 per cent of the chicken we ate. If we didn’t import so much chicken we could grow the sector to get back to that point where we all eat Irish product.”

For consumers under financial pressure, the temptation to buy the cheapest chicken on offer is understandable, and for farmer Ned Morrissey it may already be too late.

“I can’t see a future for any growers or processors here, as the supermarkets are pushing down the price and we’re competing with really cheap imports in food service. If consumers changed to buying only Irish chicken, we’ll still have a future farming it. But if not, I can’t see it continuing as it is in Ireland.”

What to look for when buying meat

WITH SO many different sources of meat, what should the consumer look for when buying chicken?

Bord Bia Quality Assured Chicken labels on packaging means the meat complies with their food safety, traceability, welfare and production requirements at every stage from the farm to the consumer.

Most chicken sold is Ireland is conventionally farmed – as opposed to free-range or organic chicken, which must comply with stricter standards on animal welfare and sourcing of chicken feed. This meat is labelled “organic” or “free-range” and is generally more expensive.

Chef Richard Corrigan has publically derided Ireland’s non-free-range chicken. The Irish poultry industry’s response was that, compared to antibiotic use in other EU countries and imported chickens from outside Europe, their product – even when it’s from an “intensive” system – is of high quality.

So are imports safe? Second to the UK, most chicken imported to Ireland is from the Netherlands, which is still the biggest user of antibiotics in livestock in Europe.

Recent research there found links between antibiotic resistance in humans, especially relating to urinary tract infections, with the high levels of antibiotics in Dutch farming.

An EU audit recently found “very low levels of controls” on non-EU meat products entering Europe and found no clear understanding of correct food-safety responses to possible alerts in relation to imported meat. Production standards outside Europe may not match those within the EU, but even within European countries, practices differ.

Carving up the cost of a chicken

With farmers’ costs rising and the price of chicken in the supermarket falling, the Irish Farmers’ Association estimates the retail value of a whole chicken is broken down as follows:

<10%goes to the farmer

35-40%goes to the processor

>50%goes to the retailer