The pig industry in Ireland ranks third in importance for the nation’s agri-production, coming behind beef and milk according to Teagasc. It accounts for 8% of the Gross Agricultural Output, but the pork industry is something that pig farmers feel is often neglected.
That’s Farming spoke to Mike McAuliffe of Truly Irish to discuss the history, present and future of pig farming in Ireland. Mike is the CEO of Truly Irish, the country’s leading pig-meat producer. The company has 86 shareholders who are all pig farmers, according to Mike: ‘We have farmers involved from Donegal, Wexford, Cork, Kerry; all over.’
The Start of Quality Pork
Truly Irish was launched in 2009, in the middle of the recession. Mike says one of the main drives of the company was to prove that Irish pork was indeed of excellent quality, despite the pork scandal of 2008 and the increase of non-Irish products being labelled as 100% Irish. He found that people would immediately dismiss the pork industry in Ireland when they heard he was a pig farmer, stating that ‘pork just doesn’t taste like it used to’.
For a pig farmer like Mike, this kind of criticism hits hard when you’re working tirelessly to produce high quality food. He says that the public’s disillusionment with Ireland’s pork products most likely came from an influx of foreign products being packaged in Ireland and subsequently being labelled as Irish. This false claim meant that the quality that Irish pig farmers strive to achieve was being diluted by the increased faux-Irish products.
‘People would tell me that pork didn’t taste the way it used to, and this wasn’t right. We [Irish pig farmers] produce high quality meat, but as soon as the pork went outside the gate we lost control.’
Quality vs Profit
Mike says that Truly Irish is there to produce high quality products: ‘Our motto is that we refuse to compromise quality for profit.’
‘Truly Irish is a quality mark as well as a brand name. We’re in all major retailers at the moment; Tesco, Londis and Spar for example. We also export some products to the UK, America, Poland and Germany,’ explains Mike.
The pork scandal in 2008 saw Ireland’s pig industry take a disastrous hit. Pork products were recalled after it was discovered that dioxins were contaminating Irish pig-meat after they were fed to animals through their feed. The horsemeat scandal also damaged the reputation of food producers throughout several countries, as the trust between consumer and producer was broken.
‘The horsemeat scandal happened because of the pressure. There was just too much pressure on the industry, and consumers wanted cheaper and cheaper goods. This causes people to compromise quality for the sake of sales.
‘I suppose it’s the nature of the industry as well, we don’t have that much control. We don’t have control on prices. We get told what price we’ll get for our meat from buyers; whereas if you go to your butchers, you don’t get to tell the butcher what you’ll pay for the meat. It shouldn’t be that way; the food-chain starts with farmers,’ reasoned Mike. ‘But what we can do is make a distinction in the quality of our meat and that of non-Irish producers.’
‘Consumers want good quality, and they’re the ones who matter, in my opinion. Whatever the consumer demands, we have to supply. So we tell the truth, we tell them that our meat is quality and we won’t compromise our quality for profit, like I said.’
A Growing Market
Mike says that the pig industry has suffered a lot in recent years, particularly in the last 24 months. There were constant losses, or at best farmers were breaking even: ‘Farmers would lose about €15- €20 per pig; it was a disaster’.
In the last couple of months, things have started to pick up again with money finally coming in, says Mike.
‘The struggle was similar to what the dairy sector was experiencing. Their prices are down as well. Pig farmers don’t really receive any subsidies though; we have no help. We’re a standalone industry, like the poultry sector. We have to be efficient.’
Mike says that Truly Irish attempts to create a premium product using homemade recipes and traditional methods. He says that their sausages are actually the healthiest on the market, made with 82% pork and oatmeal insead of rusk. Rusk has quite low nutritional value, unlike oatmeal.
‘We try to make our products healthy; we have nutritionists and a team of people striving to create the best product. We also try to reduce nitrates by feeding our pigs seaweed extract. This improves the quality of the meat and should get rid of the fears people have about pork causing cancer; that was reported by the World Health Organisation in recent years. But that’s not the pork, it’s what’s in it.’