Irish pork recovering slowly after feed scare
Organic producers failed to escape industrial farm problems, despite efforts.
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"All our Christmas hams were sitting in the cold room and we had people ringing with orders, but we could do nothing [during the recall]," she says, adding that she had to follow the same procedures as the biggest processing plants to have her meat re-released on the market.Skip to next paragraph
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The episode revealed the failure of the traceability structure for the pork industry. In contrast, Irish beef became traceable from "farm-to-fork" after Britain's bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis – or "Mad Cow" disease – in the 1990s and the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001 (although neither took hold in Ireland). Consumers wanted to know the origin of their meat and the food industry responded. Now the name and sometimes even the photograph of the farmer who raised the cattle can be found on meat packaging here.
But that's more difficult in the pig sector, according to Pat O'Keefe, deputy editor of the Irish Farmers Journal.
"With beef, an animal goes into the plant, and the meat comes out in a supermarket pack," he says. "What happens in the pig sector is that slaughtering plants kill the pigs and then send a half or a quarter carcass to secondary processors. There it might be cured and that ham sent to a frozen pizza producer. The more the meat travels the less traceable it becomes."
More intensive forms of production – with a few pig farmers processing massive amounts of animals – leave the sector vulnerable to a crisis such as this.
"The impact of one mistake is massive," says Mr. McKenna. "In this case there was a scare that, according to the European Food Safety Authority, has posed no risk to human health, yet the entire episode is going to cost the tax-payer €180 million [$250 million] in compensation to pig producers."
An upturn for the organic and artisan sector seems unlikely in the short term, according to Sinead Kerr, an artisan food technologist with Teagasc, the Irish Agriculture and Food Development Authority. She helps small producers negotiate the strict health regulations and procedures when setting up a business.
"The artisan producers wouldn't have the animals to fill an immediate shift in the market, but they will benefit in the long term," she says, adding that because of the recession, consumer choice will also be influenced by price.
Ms. Allshire, the County Cork producer, also doesn't see a sudden shift to artisan producers like herself. "Those who want quality food will always look for quality food, and those that want cheap food will always want cheap food," she says.
Instead, she and others predict a more gradual shift to organic products.
"It's the way of the future," says Mr. Brett, whose family-run operation has retained its small-scale ethos as it has expanded over the past 20 years. Having written about the sector for nearly 30 years, McKenna sees more confidence in the artisan producers and a second generation who are more commercially savvy.
"Their parents weren't [commercial] at all," he says. "They were idealistic, but the children have found a niche market and are prepared to pay extra. It's not like buying a luxury-branded good, it's buying something you trust."