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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 3°C
known unknowns

Why your food can include a United Nations of meats and you will probably never know

But do people really care what meat makes its way into their lasagne?

THOUSANDS OF TONNES of meat products from as far afield as Brazil and China are being shipped in to Ireland each year despite the country producing easily enough to feed its own residents’ appetites.

But consumers are given little information about where the meat making it into their pre-processed meals comes from, with only some fresh products carrying mandatory country-of-origin labelling.

Fresh and frozen beef currently carries the requirement in Ireland, a rule which was brought in after the BSE crisis, while similar regulations will be brought in for pig, poultry and sheep meats from April.

The European Parliament recently voted for the European Commission to come up with laws to put in place mandatory country-of-origin labelling on processed meat products – however no timing has been put on the proposal.

Meanwhile, the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA) this week claimed nearly a third of pork described as domestic produce in butchers came from overseas after it put the meat through DNA testing.

It followed a 2012 Safefood report estimated 90% of chicken meat used in the catering industry came from outside Ireland and a “significant volume” of cooked chicken meat came from outside the EU.

European Union Bans on Hens Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland Mark Stedman / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

So where does it all come from?

Last year Ireland imported €6.9 billion in food, live animals and beverages, with easily the biggest share coming from Great Britain, compared to nearly €10.5 billion in food and drink exports.

The vast bulk comes from inside the EU, but in 2013 nearly 6% of all the meat and related products by value that were shipped into the country arrived from even further afield – mostly Thailand, Brazil and China.

Here’s the breakdown of where that stock, which includes everything from fresh and frozen meats to offal, cured ham and sausages, came from:

Food origins CSO / CSO / /

Ireland imports about 35,000 tonnes of beef each year, while local consumption stands at 87,000 tonnes, according to the latest figures from Bord Bia.

For pig meat about 88,000 tonnes were imported for 142,000 tonnes consumed, while poultry imports were 103,000 tonnes, nearly the same total amount as produced in all Irish export plants.

The country produces roughly three times as much meat as it needs to feed local demand, with even poultry production outstripping requirements:

Meat origins2 Department of Agriculture Department of Agriculture

Peeling back the label

Sinn Féin MEP Lynn Boylan, who was among those pushing the recent motion, told surveys had consistently shown people wanted to know where their meat came from – particularly after the 2013 horsemeat scandal.

“Some people will only buy food from Ireland because they want to support the local economy and others might make a choice on environmental or ethical reasons,” she said.

“But what they should be entitled to is having the right information so that they can make an informed decision.”

Greyhound Pickets Strikes Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

How much?

In 2013 a European Commission report found people were strongly in favour of knowing where all their meat came from, but this support dropped off sharply when they were faced with the likely prospect of price rises.

In a scenario where all products containing meat would specify where the meat came from, the added cost to food-business operators would likely be between 15 to 20% – but possibly as high as 50%.

About 90% of that added cost for the meat component was predicted to be passed onto the customer. It said the existing food tracing systems in the EU were not good enough to pass origin “along the food chain” because they were currently set up around ensuring safety only.

But Boylan said big food manufactures had lobbied the commission hard for the report and she believed most small businesses were in favour of making food more traceable.

The IFA also lent its to support to the proposal. Pigmeat chairman, Pat O’Flaherty, said consumers should be able to make informed shopping decisions with clear information that would “promote confidence in the food chain”.

Bord Bia Reports Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney at this year's Bord Bia report Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

However Food and Drink Industry Ireland, which represents food manufacturers and suppliers, backed the commission’s findings. Director Paul Kelly said it would increase the cost for consumers and introduce “another expensive regulatory burden” for businesses.

Food manufacturers are providing origin labelling on a voluntary basis where there is a market demand and where this is feasible from an operational point of view,” he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine said country-of-origin labelling was a “complex issue” due to the broad range of products involved – from seasoned fresh meats to pizzas – and the fact they could contain meats from several different places.

She said further analysis had to be done on the costs to consumers, industry and the extent to which “potentially detailed and complex origin labels” would help consumers make their decisions.

This month, as part of’s ongoing small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we look at product provenance – how buying local matters and the importance of traceability. 

To view previous articles in our SME series click HERE.

READ: Meet the Carlow farmer making this very French delicacy much more Gaelic >

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