View from Dublin: Irish farmers could have a beef with Co-op’s jingoistic stunt
It sounded like the biggest snub to Irish beef in 20 years. Not since Russia decided to refuse beef from three counties of Ireland because of BSE in the late 1990s had there been such an affront to Irish meat exporters.
I am talking about that publicity stunt by British retailer Co-op Group, when it announced that it would adopt a British-only fresh meat policy at its 2,000 stores across the UK.
It looked like a reopening of De Valera’s economic war of the 1930s, particularly in a week of claim and counter-claim over who said what at a dinner at No. 10 Downing Street.
Throw in British Prime Minister Theresa May’s accusation that the EU was trying to influence the outcome of the UK general election, and it was an incendiary week.
But before we start panicking on farms across Ireland, it turns out that the Co-op Group doesn’t sell any Irish fresh meat. And all of its fresh chicken, pork and beef is already completely sourced in the UK.
The marketing campaign will only see Co-op dropping Danish bacon and New Zealand lamb. Given that Co-op will continue to sell foreign meat in processed non-fresh products and the fact that it is a mutual company owned by British farmers, British customers and other British members, it is really just a clever publicity stunt. The big fear for the Irish meat industry is that it could set a tone around Brexit that might spread to other retailers and other parts of British industry.
Given that we export €4.4bn of food and drink to the UK every year, there is a lot at stake.
Ireland buys 37% of the food exported by the UK, amounting to around €3.3bn per year.
However, when you strip out the rhetoric, it shouldn’t be cause for too much alarm — not yet anyway.
The UK has long had a policy of providing cheap food and it sources so much from Ireland because we can deliver high traceability at an affordable cost.
We also have some very efficient and large meat processing companies.
How many of the burgers supplied to McDonald’s and Burger King across the UK come from Ireland? Quite a few, is the answer.
When the jingoism dies down, market forces will count. A hard Brexit deal which disadvantages Irish meat processors through high tariffs cannot be ruled out.
But that will be based on the new trade deal to emerge, rather than publicity stunts.
If I was running Co-operative Group, knowing that it is owned by its British members, of course, I would actively pursue policies that appear to benefit their interests the most.
Tesco or Sainsbury’s, which are publicly-quoted commercial companies with shareholders from all over the world, are a different matter.
Some of the nonsense being spouted by hard Brexiteers is difficult to take.
Tim Martin, chairman of pub group JD Wetherspoon, has suggested that no trade deal with the EU might not be so bad, and the UK could always drop all import tariffs on goods coming into the country.
He says this would drive down the cost of goods to consumers and stimulate the economy.
Unfortunately, Tim doesn’t seem to have grasped what it might mean for domestic British producers of those products, such as farmers and the entire UK agriculture industry.
Where will this kind of rubbish end?
As well as retail stores, Co-op Group owns over 1,000 funeral homes; perhaps it could say it is only going to bury British people.