Graeme Kirk reports from Ireland, where the farmer-owned Truly Irish brand has grown from scratch to dominate the country’s premium pork market in just five years
British farmers wanting to take more control over the products their pork is made into have traditionally diversified into on-farm processing and farm shops, but just across the Irish Sea, in the Republic of Ireland, a group of producers is working together on a much larger scale to protect the reputation of the country’s pig sector.
Truly Irish Country Foods is a co-operative with 86 farmer members from all 26 counties in the republic. Collectively, they farm about 45,000 sows and sell 25,000 finishers each week into Ireland’s abattoirs; and impressively, pork from members’ farms sold under the Truly Irish brand is now a major player in pig meat sold in the country and represents more than half the market for premium pork.
The co-op started as a sow-marketing group supplying the German export trade (indeed that’s still going strong today, handling about 400 sows each week), but at the end of 2008 a food scare that hit pigmeat sales prompted a major change in direction.
“The turning point was a dioxin scare that saw home-produced bacon being cleared from the shelves across the country,” Jim McGrath, who was instrumental in setting up Truly Irish, says. “What that exercise highlighted was the amount of imported bacon that was being packed in Ireland and sold as Irish – to the detriment of bacon from pigs that had been reared and processed here.”
Safeguarding the industry
Just six-months later, in May 2009, Truly Irish was launched with the aim of safeguarding the Irish pork industry and giving consumers access to better quality Irish pork and bacon products.
“We knew we had to so something about the mislabelling and confusing branding that was being used to give consumers the impression they were buying Irish product,” Mr McGrath adds. “We were frustrated by the quality of rashers and sausages being sold to Irish consumers as they didn’t reflect what the country’s farmers were producing.
“We decided the best way to tackle this was to launch our own brand so consumers could be confident that when they purchase Truly Irish, it’s 100% home-produced, it comes from a local farmer and is fully traceable back to the farm.
“Additional assurance for our customers comes from the fact that many of our shareholders’ units are certified members of the Red Tractor scheme, and the Irish DNA boar tests provide another check that the meat is home-produced.”
Perhaps unusually for a scheme of this type, Truly Irish doesn’t get involved in how members sell their finished pigs to the abattoirs.
“We see our role as promoting Irish pork by getting quality products onto the supermarket shelves,” the organisation’s chief executive, Mike McAuliffe says. “It’s the fact that these products have to be made with pork from our shareholders’ pigs that will give Truly Irish members an advantage in the market place.”
The Truly Irish brand currently supplies traditional Irish rashers, premium Irish sausages and traditional Irish white and black puddings into five Irish supermarket chains including Tesco. The co-op controls the production process, which is contracted to selected manufacturers that use traditional small-batch production methods and original Irish family recipes. And to ensure the manufacturers use pigs produced by Truly Irish shareholders, they are given lists of member farm slapmarks and are regularly audited.
Truly Irish also sells the finished products to the supermarkets and negotiates prices, and according to Mr McGrath, the fact the company is owned by farmers is a big advantage.
“They like the story we have to tell and the fact they’re dealing closely with the pig producers,” he says. “We hold regular product tastings in stores and always get a good reaction when consumers are able to meet our members and hear all about pig production.”
Despite suggestions that it could take years to establish the brand and break even, Truly Irish has been profitable from year one. Rather than distribute dividends back to producers, however, it prefers instead to invest in promoting the brand – including TV and radio advertising – although members have seen the value of their shareholding increase.
When the company started it had its eye firmly on the quality end of the market, which represented about 20% of Irish pork sales. The recession has reduced this figure a little, but Truly Irish has been able to capture a market share of about 12%.
The co-op’s board – which also includes chairman Michael Cronin, David Ronan, John Hanrahan and John O’Doherty – has now turned its attention to exports, and Truly Irish has already been listed by online supermarket Ocado on the British mainland.
“We don’t see ourselves competing with British farmers for market share in their home market,” Mr McAuliffe said, “but we’d like to think we could be second choice after British and replace some of the imported pork from the Continent that’s already there.”