Two weeks ago was World Food Day but I never got a chance to write a post. I interviewed Shane McAuliffe of Truly Irish some time ago but never got around to writing the post as I needed to give it sufficient time to do it justice and now that the book is in the editor’s hands, I’ve time to get back to blogging. Pig farming doesn’t get a great press here in Ireland – we hear of brands of ham and bacon that sound Irish but are actually foreign imports, we are aware that pig farming has to work to tight margins, we hear of pigs being kept in crates and wonder if it happens in Ireland, we are reminded that keeping our own free range pigs is the way to go and yes, it would be wonderful but what are the ham, bacon, rashers and sausages that we buy really like? Are they 100% Irish? Are the pigs raised in good conditions when on a commercial farm? I have got free range meat from Oldfarm and I usually buy my pigmeat from my local butcher but sometimes I do pick up packs of sausages and rashers in my local supermarket but I sometimes squirm when I do so – simply because I wonder if what I am buying truly Irish products. Now, with the Truly Irish label – I know I am.
In an ideal world, we would all rear our own meat and barter with other families. Even though we have the space here, I just don’t have the time to devote to fencing off an area for two pigs. The work isn’t necessarily in their daily maintenance – it’s in the hassle involved too in getting them to an abbattoir and getting the area ready for them. I keep meaning to get hens but the former hen shed became the goat shed and last winter we were so tight for space, it became home to 10 calves for a number of weeks. 2014 is going to be busier and we haven’t had the funds to update our calf housing as planned and so the hens are postponed for another year (not to mention the pigs).
So how do you ensure you are buying quality Irish meat? You may intend to get all your meat from your butcher (I know I do) but it does happen that I didn’t get there for a week and I have to buy some supermarket meat when doing my evening grocery shopping when the kids are at cubs.
Shane and his family run an extremely efficient commercial pig farm in Kerry. The facilities are of the highest standards and the whole system is incredibly effective. As Shane’s father says in the video – the world’s population is increasing, more people have to be fed and their system allows for efficient production of food. Their pigs will never be in a field or wallow in a mud bath but they are content. If you watch the two videos you will see how your rashers and sausages are produced, from when they are conceived to birth to slaughter at 28 weeks.
Shane, how long have you and your family been pig farming?
My late grandfather Jack McAuliffe built chicken sheds in the 1960s but one night they burnt down in a fire. He went to the local market in Castleisland in Co. Kerry and bought a few pigs and that is where his legacy started. In the 1980s he built more intensive pig units to become one of the most prominent pig farmers in the south west of Ireland, before my father Mike took over.
What did you study in England?
I obtained a BSc in Agriculture from Cork Institute of Technology in 2011 and a BSc Hons in Agricultural Land Management from Waterford Institute of Technology in 2012. I have just completed my post graduate studies in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Aberystwyth University in Wales where I was studying Livestock Sciences.
How many pigs do you sell each year?
Approximately 40,000 a year
We often hear of pig farmers having a tough time in making a profit on their business – is this because the customer isn’t prepared to pay more or is it because inputs have gone up so much? Or is it a mixture of both reasons?
We are farmers in the Truly Irish brand. This was set up in 2009 in the wake of the pork dioxin crisis. You may remember that when pigmeat was ordered to be removed off the shelves, many well known Irish brands stayed. Why? Because they had been using imported pig meat.
Truly Irish Country Foods proudly has the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Logo on all its products and it can be traced back to local farms. For a brand starting up, it was expected we would fail and not make profit for a number of years. In year 1 we made profit and we have have an annual turnover of €12m, annual growth of 40% and are the 3rd largest breakfast meats brand in Ireland. This shows that consumers are willing to pay that little bit more for a premium product that is locally produced and traced back to farms. The recent horse meat controversy has taken control of people’s spend on meat products across the board. The consumer now demands to know exactly where their meat comes from and we provide this with full farm traceability on all our products. We are delighted so many retailers stock the Truly Irish brand.
Our values are as follows:
- At Truly Irish we are passionate about creating only the very best, most delicious quality bacon products.
- We use only the finest Bord Bia Quality approved pigs in our bacon which also come from Category 1 Welfare farms.
- Our farm practices are similar to that of the UK , for example, we do not castrate our pigs unlike mainland Europe.
- Our standard is higher over any other part of Europe and the majority of our farms are already ahead of the restrictions for 2013.
- We are committed to the integrity of our bacon products and to always use only the most wholesome, natural feedstuffs and ingredients, and best animal husbandry practices.
- Our competitors say they go from farm to fork. We go a step further. We are there from conception.
With regard to the second part of the question, poor pig meat prices and high feed costs have forced many pig farmers out of business. Only 325 commercial pig farmers remain who struggle to survive. The Irish pig industry has experienced its lowest profitability in more than a generation. A rapid escalation in cereal prices in 2010-2011 and again in 2012 including the largest single month’s price rise in wheat price since 1973, resulted in the composite price of pig feed reaching a 20 year high. Feed constitutes 70% of the total cost of producing a pig.
With the emphasis now on eating good quality but less meat, how can you show the customer that your product has ben reared in an environment that gives the animal a good life?
It’s very simple; a pig won’t reward you unless it is happy. We believe happy pigs make the best quality pork when raised in an environment as natural as possible. A picture speaks a thousand words, and our video speaks for itself. In Kerry, even our pigs play football!!
Having watched the video, I was really impressed with the sheer scale and efficiency at which it operates, it was obviously a huge investment. What persuaded you and your father to make that investment?
Being part of Truly Irish we know what the consumer wants, we know that animal welfare and traceability is of the utmost importance. Our unit was constructed in 2008, only months before the pork dioxin crisis.
We sometimes see stories or images of pigs in ‘crates’ where they can scarcely move and from which they are fattened and/or feed their young. Why does this occur?
Sow stalls are banned in Ireland since January 2013. For many years now all our sows are loosed housed, as can be seen with the video. .
Often referred to as farrowing ‘crates’, these are specially designed pieces of machinery which optimises pig welfare. Air to water heat pumps are what heat our heated pads in the farrowing section. Piglets will be attracted to the heat and won’t be killed by the sow when they are resting. We have also designed anti crush bars. This is adjustable to allow move movement to the sow as the piglets get older.
Tell me about ThriveRite
Truly Irish are involved with a 1.68million EU funded group called THRIVE RITE and together, will study the effects of seaweed extract Laminaria fed to pigs. We hope to increase the pigs’ immune system and enhance antioxidant levels (meaning less nitrates would need to be added to the meat) resulting in boosting the humans own immune system upon eating Truly Irish products. Truly Irish will have exclusive rights to use this upon completion.
As consumers we have choices. The current obesity campaign on television is trying to educate parents to reduce their children’s sugar intake and reduce their portion sizes. For many of us, what we put in our trolley will be dictated by cost. However, we owe a duty to our family’s health to ensure that what we are putting into our bodies on a day to day basis is reasonably nutritious and includes food that is of good quality. Personally speaking, I squirm if I see a chicken for €5 – how can a chicken have been reared in a decent environment, plucked, cleaned out and end up on a supermarket shelf for only €5? That’s another argument!
If we are to ensure our food stays good quality (no horsemeat again please) we need to ensure our food producers get a decent return on their produce so they can stay in business and keep up the good work. Rear your own pigs if you can or buy from a smallholding producer such as Oldfarm if you want to eat meat that you know has been out in the fresh air and lived a longer life. Otherwise, please try to ensure that what you buy in the supermarket or the butcher is truly Irish.