We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

something fishy

'It's misleading' - is a tricolour sticker on fish enough to convince you it comes from Ireland?

The large supermarkets in operation here have adopted similar approaches to each other when it comes to marketing fish sourced from abroad.

IMG_0676 The fish section in a Dunnes Stores food hall

IN FEBRUARY OF this year, the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland issued a series of findings and judgements with regard to some of the infractions committed by Irish businesses in touting their wares that month.

One of those was a slap on the wrist for German retail giant Lidl, which was found to have marketed fish caught in the Barents Sea (off the coast of Russia in the Arctic in case you’re wondering) and off the Namibian coast as being “fresh”.

The ASAI concluded that Lidl was in breach of the Code of Standards for Advertising. Lidl amended the adverts in question, and the ASAI concluded that “no further action was required”.

For Irish fishmongers Nicholas Lynch Limited, the case represented just the tip of the iceberg. It was that company’s Niall Murray who made the initial complaint to the ASAI.

“There is a lot more to this problem than just the ASAI issue,” says Murray. “The issue of labelling with the Irish flag or keeping the country of origin in the background is happening with pretty much all the big retailers at this stage.”

His quest for what he sees as a fairer marketplace began in 2013, when Lidl introduced a labelling system (‘product of Ireland’, ‘produced in Ireland’, or ‘packed in Ireland’) incorporating the Irish tricolour on some of its products, to help distinguish between homegrown produce and imports.

Then CEO of Lidl Ireland Kenneth McGrath (who has since moved pastures to Denis O’Brien’s Digicel group) told an Oireachtas agriculture committee in May 2013 that “in the absence of clear guidelines, we have developed our own system”.

Nowadays, four years later, using an Irish flag in different ways has become the norm for the major supermarkets here, not to mention outside brands like Donegal Catch which can be found in many of those stores.

As far as Murray and Nicholas Lynch are concerned, the situation decided upon by the ASAI in February (and the examples outlined below) amount to food fraud, something the FSAI defines as being “committed when food is illegally placed on the market with the intention of deceiving the customer, usually for financial gain”.

The FSAI does not concur with this opinion.

“It’s impossible to compete with a company like Lidl with its marketing budget when they are making people believe the product they sell is something totally different to the reality – that is, fresh and Irish,” says Murray.

Here are some examples of the kind of branding in use in Irish supermarkets at present:

  • Lidl – King Prawns bearing the ‘produced in Ireland’ tricolour. The prawns are farmed in Vietnam and India

Lidl 2

Click here to view a larger image

  • Aldi – the supermarket sells its own Skellig Bay fresh hake fillets branded with a tricolour and a ‘packed in Ireland’ tricolour insignia – the small print says the fish has been caught in the south-east Atlantic and defrosted – which conceivably could mean any waters from Morocco down as far as South Africa. Aldi also sells Skellig Bay tuna steaks, complete with IRFU branding, which are sourced from many different places, including the south-east Pacific (interestingly, a batch of these same tuna steaks was this week recalled by the FSAI due to the detection of high levels of the chemical histamine, with the origin of said steaks on the FSAI release, of course, being Ireland)

Aldi 3

Click here to view a larger image

Aldi 2

Click here to view a larger image

  • Dunnes Stores – sells ‘Wild Atlantic Jumbo Prawns’ – the packaging highlights Co Cork on a map of Ireland. And true enough this is where the product is packed. The prawns themselves are caught in Brazilian waters, while Nicholas Lynch says he suspects the ‘wild Atlantic’ name may have been picked to evoke images of the Wild Atlantic Way western tourist trail.

Dunnes 3

Click here to view a larger image

  • Tesco – sells smoked cod fillets with ‘packed in Ireland’ tricolour. The fish is caught in a multitude of places, including off Ireland, but also including the Barents Sea, Norwegian Sea, and Icelandic Sea

Tesco 2

Click here to view a larger image

  • Super Valu – also sells Jumbo Wild Atlantic Prawns, labelled as being produced by Dunn’s Seafare in Co Dublin. These prawns are caught in Argentina

SV 1

Click here to view a larger image

And here’s Green Isle Foods’ Donegal Catch getting in on the act with a frozen salmon offering. The package has a ‘packed in Ireland’ tricolour. The fish meanwhile is caught in the north-east Pacific Ocean, which again conceivably could mean in waters anywhere from Alaska to California:

Dunnes 1

Click here to view a larger image

All this is freely printed on the packaging. But you have to be the kind of person who closely reads packaging to see it.

Lidl for instance has happily admitted in the past that once a product is being handled by an Irish supplier, it will give it its ‘product of Ireland’ branding.

So where’s the harm?

Shopping local

The harm, says Murray, is that people want to feel like they’re shopping local and the supermarkets have realised this. “It’s akin to the Guaranteed Irish brand when it first came in – it’s sought after,” he says. As far as Nicholas Lynch is concerned, genuine homegrown Irish retailers are losing out as a result.

“For 12 days straight in late 2014 there was dreadful weather in Ireland,” says Nick Lynch. “We knew there wasn’t a boat in the water fishing mackerel anywhere near Ireland. You can monitor them online apart from anything else. Yet we had people telling us that ‘there’s tons of it up the road in Lidl, and it’s all Irish’.”

One way or another that mackerel was defrosted, even if it was Irish. But anyone who wasn’t well-versed in the industry would think they were buying fresh from Cork on the same day.

For its part Lidl (as do all of the other large supermarket chains in reality) says with regard to the labelling of its products: “Our packaging is 100% compliant with all regulations and all information relating to origin is clearly marked so we are absolutely not attempting to mislead anyone.”

Murray and Lynch have two main bones of contention – that fish that is frozen at sea thousands of miles away isn’t being clearly marked as having been defrosted, and that an Irish flag is being applied to fish products that are only produced (or packed) in Ireland. Not necessarily caught here.

Comparing recent Lidl brochures for both the Irish and German markets does appear instructive – in the Irish version, hake, ‘seafood mix’, and cod fillets are all marked as having been ‘produced in Ireland’ with an attendant tricolour. In the German version, a cod fillet is listed clearly as having been defrosted.

Lidl Easter Leaflet Irish Lidl brochure. Note the Irish tricolour

Lidl Germany brochure March Lidl brochure from Germany showing cod fillet. 'Aufgetaut' translates as defrosted

Lidl and Aldi have certainly been a little careless with the rules on occasion. On foot of complaints from Nicholas Lynch, Aldi was outed as selling farmed Scottish smoked salmon as the wild Irish variant last December (a “descriptive error” was the explanation given).

Lidl, meanwhile, was called out for having used Bord Bia’s stamp of approval on promotional material advertising its fish. The problem is that Bord Bia’s quality assurance scheme doesn’t cover fish (it’s covered by Bord Iascaigh Mhara). That issue was put down to “human error during leaflet design”.

Two weeks after February’s ASAI decision, a Lidl outlet in Co Meath was still stocking the Inis Mara cod fillets under a sales banner reading ‘fresh cod fillets’. When contacted by regarding this, Lidl’s response was: “Following on from the ASAI ruling in February we liaised closely with the FSAI and issued updates in relation to signage and ticketing in all stores. Unfortunately it looks like there was an error with this promotional price ticket and we are reviewing all the ticketing set up internally.”

IMG_0930 Inis Mara cod fillets being sold as 'fresh' in Lidl

When we asked all the major supermarkets trading here for their approach to this subject their responses were:

  • “With regard to Tesco’s own label products, we are fully compliant with all national and European legislation set out with regard to labelling” – Tesco
  • “Our packaging is 100% compliant with all regulations and all information relating to origin is clearly marked so we are absolutely not attempting to mislead anyone” – Lidl
  • “All products we sell are correctly labelled and comply with all relevant regulations” – Aldi
  • “We rigorously adhere to all labelling legislation relating to the sourcing and marketing of Irish produce” – Super Valu
  • Dunnes Stores, as is its custom, did not reply

So, what does EU legislation have to say? Well, EU Directive 2000/13/EC suggests that “a product… shall be accompanied by particulars as to the… specific treatment which it has undergone (eg powdered, freeze-dried, deep-frozen…) in all cases where omission of such information could create confusion in the mind of the purchaser”.

Meanwhile, Regulation 1169/2011 states that “where a product has been defrosted, the final consumer should be appropriately informed of its condition”.

The FSAI’s take

The ASAI deferred responsibility for our queries to the FSAI when contacted. The FSAI’s response suggests that the matter is not quite so black-and-white as a smaller retailer might believe. A spokesperson told us that the “origin” of wild fish is “not clear-cut”.

Under the EU Common Fisheries Policy ”it is possible for a fish which is not caught in Irish waters, to be considered part of the Irish fish quota”, they said.

“Therefore on  a case by case basis depending on a number of factors as set out broadly above, a fish which is caught outside the Irish territorial waters could still claim ‘Irish’ origin under EU rules.”

Regarding the placement of a national flag on a product, the FSAI’s take is that such practice does not contravene EU legislation – “The provision of voluntary information on a product label is a commercial decision and whilst the voluntary information provided on a product can differ from one EU member state to another it must always be in compliance with  the requirements of FIC (food information for consumers).”

When we suggested that the description of defrosted produce (which is mandatory per EU law) on Irish products might be a deal more subtle than that seen in other European countries, the spokesperson said that the FSAI “does not believe” that this is the case.

All of which would seem to suggest that the larger supermarkets are well within their rights to be marketing their fish products the way they are.

But, legally compliant or no, is it misleading?

“The cod I have on my counter today came off a boat called the Adventurer, landed into Ballycotton and I have to have that off a boat, get it to Ashbourne (in Co Meath), filleted and on my fish counter and sold within 72 hours. People might think this is a case of sour grapes but when you buy from a local fishmonger you support an Irish boat, an Irish boat agent or co-op, Irish processors and an Irish fishmonger,” says Murray.

The bigger retailers use huge marketing budgets to make consumers believe that these products are the same when in fact they couldn’t be more different, the only thing they have in common is the species is the same.
The Irish consumer deserves to know what they are buying clearly before they buy it, if something is advertised it needs to be advertised for what it is – defrosted and imported.

“It benchmarks what-should-be-available expectations,” agrees Lynch.

It’s grossly misleading and simply is not tolerated in other European countries.

Read: Staff at liquidated charity Console still haven’t been paid and it looks like they never will be

Read: The average age for Irish brides and grooms is getting older and older

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Your Voice
Readers Comments
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.