Truly Irish

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.

truly irish

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.

17 thoughts on “Truly Irish

  1. Hey Lorna, thank you for the lovely mentions of our pork!

    I’d like to take Shane up on his claims regarding outdoor pigs though. Firstly, pigs will survive outdoors. We’ve been rearing pigs here now for 8 years and have never had a pig freeze to death – despite temperatures dropping to -17 degrees! There are breeds that are designed for outdoors, they are intelligent animals and if it is too cold (or wet) outside, they will stay indoors tucked up in bed – as they are doing here today – it is too windy.

    He also claims ‘mortality rates among outdoor pigs is extremely high’…. stuff and nonsense. We’ve had 1 piglet die in 8 years. It was born weak and could not suckle.

    As for disease rates being higher…. again a lot of nonsense! We use natural, gmo-free feed and natural remedies to prevent any disease. And again in 8 years we’ve probably only had the vet here 2 or 3 times, mainly for injured animals.

    We too comply with all the Quality Assured controls as set out by Bord Bia…. and last year our meat was the first free-range pork to be awarded the Bord Bia Quality mark.

    Finally, I would say to people yes, of course, buy Irish products and make sure to read the labels on all foods, sometimes the labelling can be very misleading as to the source of the product…. but do also consider what the ‘meat’ was fed when it was being reared.

    Margaret

    • You are welcome Margaret and I think most people would like to buy free range meat – be it chicken or pork – and know that it is definitely free range rather than a chicken in a shed that can see daylight and is described as freerange because it allegedly has access to the outdoors.
      I know very little about the rearing of pigs so can’t comment but yes, I’d imagine some breeds would be hardier and happy enough to be outside as long as they have shelter.
      The problem is (as highlighted in some of my previous posts) is the consumer wants food that is cheaper all the time and yes, we need to know if our meat has been injected and what it has been fed!! Most people don’t seem to care though. I suppose I wanted to write this post to highlight for those who don’t get to the butcher or to an independent free range supplier that they can still buy meat in the supermarket that is truly Irish. The McAuliffe system is incredibly efficient but it has to be in order to make a return and if producers like these go out of business, then the other option for many is imports as convenience of buying at the supermarket is what most opt for I guess.

      • You are somewhat correct Lorna in that people seem to want convenience and cheapness…. however, as the saying goes ‘be careful what you wish for’.

        Somethings got to give and most usually it is quality. Better to eat less of good quality would be my motto.

      • I agree. The problem is that until the latest obesity campaign, price comparison websites were comparing prices in relatively nutritious foods e.g. the difference in price between Avonmore and Tesco milk, without revealing that supermarket milk is sold as a loss leader. There was no mention of cooking a casserole from scratch rather than buying ready milk or making one’s own pastry instead of buying readymade.

        If people are to buy in supermarkets, I would like to see them buying a brand they know for definite is Irish. Yes, I’d prefer to eat pigs that are out in the sunshine but when I haven’t got to my butcher, I’m happyish buying pigs that are reared in a good environment than imported.

        Maybe I’m wrong but I like to trust Irish food producers. And I like to know I am eating Irish

  2. Have read some uninformed CRAP in my time, but I think McAuliffe’s wins a prize for sheer ignorance on free range gmo free aninmals. Perhaps he would like to debate with me publicly on the pros and cons of the different ways to raise pigs, without the use of GMO and chemical additives to their food. The real unresearched risk of LONG TERM dangers from feeding pigs GMO’s has never been evaluated for either for the wellbeing of the pigs or the consumption of the meat by humans (Jack Rhineman et al) [perhaps you would like to read some research from Denmark regarding pig illness and mortalities from eating GMO feed].

    Your comments re “freezing” to death and increased Illness are utter nonsense and shows very limited knowledge of “natural aninmals”.

    Lorna I am surprised that you published this without checking your facts regarding free range pigs. I feel like saying shame on you.. but then……,

    • Hi Alfie

      After discussion with Shane and another free range pig producer, I removed that paragraph. I agree it wasn’t reflective on the shelter etc and the coats of hardier breeds etc.

      Dairy and suckler herds can have problems with cows smothering their calves by inadvertedly lying on them – from memory when we had pigs when I was little, it was a common problem – that was why I asked the question re the farrowing crates as I know they have been used in the past to prevent it.

      I was not slating free range at all – I agree with you that free range is best and yes, if all pigs can be produced on non GMO food, all the better and yes, I would love to see all food producers being able to rear all their stock outdoors with shelter and on non GMO. As Shane argues, producers need to produce their product effeciently to make a margin and to produce enough.

      I feel that my post shows that free range is the best. My last paragraph urges people to buy from free range producers if they can. The reality is most people pick up their pack of rashers from supermarket shelves – they will make choices based on price and Irishness. I wanted them to know that the Truly Irish brand is truly irish.

      The fact is that commercial farmers need to make a living – margins are tight. We cannot finish steers on grass – we cannotgive them 3 summers on grass. It is cost effective for us to give them a summer and a half on grass and finish them as bulls,indoors and on adlib meal.

      Lorna

  3. Always good to see strong reactions to blog posts/tweets. Thanks for posting Lorna.

    I find the intensive vs extensive argument of a great deal of interest. Having the addition of ‘local’ or in this case ‘national’ option is fantastic. Here in Wales the annual kill is around 36,000 pigs, less than Mr McAuliffe’s unit produces in a year so we don’t often have that choice of buying local, let alone local and to a rearing method of our choice. As a pork producer and processor our biggest problem is that of supplychain; having sufficient pigs to turn into bacon.

    • Hi Illtud, All the strong reactions (here and on twitter) show the passion – I think most of us are on the same side really – produce meat that has been brought up in a kind, humane way and tastes good. Wow, I didn’t realise Ireland produced multiples of Wales’s supply of pig.
      I assumed you sourced freerange pigs from local producers – didn’t realise it was such a problem with demand over there. Many thanks for commenting, particularly interesting to hear from a pig producer in a nearby country 🙂
      Looking forward to seeing you at ACT. I presume you will be there?

  4. Great post Lorna, I was really impressed with the commercial hog farm, very modern and hi tech. The pigs looked like they were treated well and lived a good life which we all know makes for better tasting pork. I wished our commercial hog farms here in the states treated their hogs so humanly. I agree with most of the comments here about pigs raised out doors with no GMO feeds are best, but in defense of the commercial hog farm, to raise the volume of pigs they do would be a lot harder to do outside with the same success. I am not sure, but would bet that all that commented here raise pigs outside on a much smaller scale.

    • Thanks Gordon, appreciate the comment. I think it is great that a commercial producer is so free with letting people see their facilities apart from the fact it is interesting to see. I agree – it isn’t going to be possible to supply 40,000 pigs in a year or anything near that scale. The Irish love their bacon! As Illtud said, when you think that one commercial unit can produce more pigs than the whole of Wales, it brings home how much is eaten.

  5. One thing not touched on is the problem of excreta–we saw wonderful clean environments in these video, all those slatted floors–but with this volume of pigs, the amount of manure must be huge, and nothing was mentioned about handling it. And pig farms, especially large scale farms, traditionally stink! The manure/stink of industrial pig farms has been and is a huge problem in the U.S. Any idea how this is handled by this company?

    • Hi Sally, I’ll have to ask Shane to respond about that. To my knowledge, in order to get planning permission, they would have needed an agreeement with local farmers or sufficient land themselves to get spread it and they would need sufficient storage for that number of animals too. Good point 🙂

    • Hi Sally, agriculture in Ireland is predominately a grass based production system. We have farmers crying out for pig manure because of its value in nutrients. Chemical fertilizer costs here are very high and with pig manure being cheap we have a truck delivering slurry full time to farmers in the area. We also have our own beef cattle farms where we deliver the slurry to. Teagasc, our agri food development authority, have done extensive research into alternative uses for pig manure. Anaerobic digestion, composting of manure solids, use of solid manure as fuel, integrated constructed wetlands and woodchip biofilters were all examined but none are economically feasible at this time. More information can be found here – http://www.teagasc.ie/publications/2012/1941/5823_EnergyFromPigManure.pdf. We dont have any problems with smell as we are in a secluded rural area.

      • thanks Shane – yes, I’ve heard that pig slurry is the best in terms of giving nutrients to the soil/grass growth etc. Many thanks for answering our queries.

  6. In the 10 years leading to 2010, the cost of fertilizer N in Ireland has been increasing at an annual rate of approximately 9%!!! We don’t buy CAN anymore thanks to having a plentiful supply of pig manure 🙂

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