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Dublin: 2°C Thursday 21 January 2021

Northern Irish products not being of EU origin could cause 'huge problems' for valuable Irish dairy sector

Lorcan McCabe, a Cavan dairy farmer, said this could “pose huge problems” for the dairy sector.

Image: Shutterstock/Raquel Pedrosa

AFTER BREXIT’S ‘TRANSITION period’ ends on 31 December, Northern Ireland products and materials will no longer be considered as being of EU origin.

This could cause problems for all-island industries, particularly the dairy industry which represents one of Ireland’s most valuable exports.

Ireland exports 85% of all its dairy products – milk, cream, butter, cheese and baby formula – making it the 10th largest dairy exporter in the world. Milk, cheese and butter are worth €2.4 billion to the Irish economy while total dairy exports are worth €4.4 billion.  

It had been highlighted previously that not having the highly regarded ‘of EU origin’ label on dairy products from the island of Ireland may damage the products’ value when exported abroad – particularly for powdered milk used as baby formula.

As reported previously, the Irish government has highlighted that Northern Ireland products and materials won’t be of EU origin after 31 December.

A spokesperson said:

Northern Irish goods will, after the transition period ends, continue to circulate freely on the EU Single Market, as Northern Ireland will apply the rules of the EU Customs Code, while remaining part of the UK’s customs territory BUT when exporting outside of the EU, Northern Irish goods are considered UK goods for rules of origin requirements.

This wasn’t just for agri-foods like dairy and beef, but would include any products that are produced on one side of the border, but that source materials from the other side of the border.

Lorcan McCabe, a Cavan dairy farmer, told TheJournal.ie that this would “pose huge problems” for the dairy sector. 

McCabe, who is also deputy president of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA), said that a lot of milk comes into his farm from Northern Ireland.

“If that is the case, sure it’s going to have to be segregated, and that’s physically not possible. The capacity is not within the processes to allow that to happen.

There’s no way that processes will be able to stop the line for 10 minutes, wash it down, and have only the Northern Irish milk coming in for eight hours and then revert it back to ‘Southern’ milk.

He said that during the month of May, there’s less than a 1% capacity in the system.

There are 180 different standards and regulations that dairy farmers in the EU must adhere to, which McCabe says is part of what makes an EU-origin product so valuable.

“Some might find it onerous on farmers, but it gets us markets all over the world. EU standards are vital for us.”

He says that if Northern Ireland can prove they maintain these standards post-transition period, “it shouldn’t be a big deal”.

“It’s as bad for the Northern Ireland farmers or maybe worse than for the southern farmers, no question about it.”

MEP Seán Kelly believes that an EU-UK trade deal will be done at the “last minute”, and so details like the rule of origin would not be included. 

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But Kelly adds that he thinks a solution to the problem will be found, because “that’s part of the intention behind the Protocol in Northern Ireland, that we would have the all Ireland economy”.

“I think it’s a question of getting over the technicalities,” he said, “and once they define it and limit it to the goods that we’re talking about, then I think that we’ll get a way around it.

We have to ensure that there is some mechanism included in whatever trade deal they come up with to say that where there are issues in Ireland in relation to rules of origin, that there will be a procedure to examine them and to rectify them – in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and the Protocol on Northern Ireland.

Kelly said that this was a good example of why trade deals take so long to agree – and that there was a “danger” that if a trade deal is struck, it would be too “general” to make these kinds of allowances for Northern Ireland. 

A change to EU origin rules

New EU rules come into effect on the 1 April which means that where the country of origin of a food is given and where this is not the same as the origin of the main ingredient of that type of food, then the origin of the main ingredient must also be given.

Here’s the example the FSAI gave: if the origin of a chicken curry is declared as Irish on the label but the chicken is not Irish, then it will be a legal requirement to also give the origin of the chicken on the label, “to ensure the consumer is not mislead”.

Origin can be indicated on a label by statements or words, pictures, symbols, or colours/designs that refer to a geographical origin.

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