I have been a strong proponent of providing consumers with clear and transparent information about the food they consume, including as regards the origin of that food.
The rules on origin labelling are determined at EU level and I recently signed into law an SI to give effect to the new European Regulations for country of origin labelling of meat from sheep, pigs, poultry and goats. These mandatory rules require a label to state the Member State where the animal was reared and slaughtered. They do not operate on a regional, multi member state or all-island basis.
The requirement at EU level applies only to prepackaged meat. However, I believe this information should also be made available to consumers purchasing meat sold loose through butcher shops and deli counters. As a result, I have asked my officials to work with the Department of Health to extend these rules to “loose meat” and work is progressing well in bringing this to fruition.
With regards to Northern Ireland, I have been in regular contact with my counterpart Minister Michelle O’Neill on labelling issues that affect both jurisdictions on the island.
There is also considerable engagement at official level and, only last week, my Department met with officials from DARD Northern Ireland to discuss the practical implementation of the new Country of origin labelling requirements, including any impact which these may be having on the trade in lambs from Northern Ireland. It is true to say that the volume of lamb imported here from Northern Ireland has reduced this year and while the new labelling rules may be contributing to this decline, there are a number of other factors to be considered, including the euro-sterling exchange rate and the early Easter lamb market this year. I’m also pleased to note that sheep prices here have maintained their current levels continuing the strong prices seen in 2014.
The issue with lamb this year bears many similarities to what happened last year with so called “nomad cattle”. These mixed origin cattle, born and reared in the South and subsequently slaughtered in the North, were less attractive to UK retailers that have a preference for labelling a single Member State on their beef products. At the time, this was considered to be having a knock on effect on cattle sales at marts in the South, and Minister O’Neill and I engaged intensively with processors and retailers in an effort to facilitate the continuation of these traditional trade flows.
Ultimately, these issues are a function of the market and are driven by customer specification. This is borne out by the fact that live export of beef animals to the North is nearly 50% higher than it was at this time last year and this has been achieved without any change to the beef labelling rules . This shows that a true picture of the market forces impacting on the market takes time to become apparent and the situation for lamb this year is no different, particularly since the new rules have only been introduced from 1 April.
Of course, it is important that we continue to monitor the impact of labelling rules carefully. I will continue to work to ensure that mandatory labelling laws provide clear and transparent information to consumers, are practicable, and do not negatively impact on Ireland’s agrifood exports.