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'Protectionist' Republic rejects Northern Ireland milk as dairy market turns sour

By Michael McHugh

A Cross border war of words has broken out after some Northern Irish milk processors found themselves unable to sell south of the border – costing them dearly in lost contracts.

The Irish dairy authority has been accused of protectionism after it emerged that many retailers in the Republic require the Republic's National Dairy Council (NDC) label.

The mark guarantees milk was produced in the Republic. But because Northern Irish processors do not have that guarantee contracts have been lost – including a major Dale Farm bid to supply Superquinn.

This week milk processors refused to buy milk taken from Northern Irish cows at a show in the Irish Midlands. A container lorry had to be sent from Omagh to pick up the milk and return it north of the border.

Cormac Cunningham, who helps run family business Strathroy Dairy in Omagh, said: "We see it as long-term potentially very bad that on a small island like this, protectionist policies are being pursued."

Stormont Trade Minister Arlene Foster said the practice could contravene the principles of the European single market.

"Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are food-exporting regions and neither can afford to be protectionist," she said.

"If the campaign were to be replicated in Great Britain, excluding product that was not produced and processed in the UK, it would cause immense problems for the food industry in the Republic of Ireland."

The Dale Farm Group supplied milk to Superquinn until recently, but was excluded from tendering for that business following a decision by the retailer that supplies must meet NDC specifications – produced and processed in the Republic of Ireland.

The Republic's Dairy Council is an industry representative organisation which aims to promote consumption.

In September 2009 it introduced a packaging mark giving consumers in the Republic the "reassurance" of knowing that if they bought milk or cream with the NDC guarantee, it was farmed and processed locally.

The organisation's website says: "Research from 2011 shows that consumers here have become very engaged in the jobs debate since the recession.

"Some 31% are saying they are buying more Irish food and drink brands, and – when asked why – 90% say they want to support the economy and jobs."

The Dairy Council for Northern Ireland is threatening to take action in the European courts to stop the campaign.

Ms Foster added: "I welcome that approach and will offer support in addressing the anti-competitive stance of the campaign."

QUOTES

"I'm concerned the NDC campaign is a contravention of the principles of the single market. I believe the campaign is a misuse of country of origin labelling. It discriminates against consumers in the Republic, who are being denied the choice and benefits of market dynamics that product from Northern Ireland would provide."

– Trade Minister Arlene Foster

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