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Irish meat industry ‘focused on ensuring it is as sustainable as possible’

Meat Industry Ireland says the sector supports 16,000 direct jobs in the State

The Irish meat industry is committed to playing its role in the achievement of Ireland’s climate action targets at the same time as finding new higher value markets for its output. “The meat sector is a major component of the agrifood industry and a huge contributor to both regional and national economies,” says Cormac Healy, senior director of Meat Industry Ireland (MII), the Ibec sector association that represents the beef, lamb, pig meat and poultry processing sectors.

MII provides a wide variety of services for its members, including policy development and advocacy, provision of up-to-date information on all technical and legislative developments and policy changes that may affect the meat industry, he says.

Healy points to the historic strength and importance of the industry.

“The industry’s annual output is worth €5 billion per annum, and it is deeply embedded in the rural economy. The industry contributes to regional development through 50 major processing facilities around the country.


"From Bunclody to Ballyhaunis and from Bundoran to Ballybay, the industry reaches right across rural Ireland. It also supports 16,000 direct jobs in meat-processing plants and at least the same number again in associated service and supply sectors."

The industry is a major employment creator for regional towns around the State. "A typical meat processing plant will generate €100 million in economic activity in its local area," says Healy. "It will also employ 300-350 people as well as supporting other jobs in the area. The industry also contributes to the livelihoods of 100,000 farmer suppliers across the different species."

The industry is also a major exporter. “It is very much an export-focused sector,” he says. “For some of the sub-sectors, up to 90 per cent of output is exported and the overall industry generates close to €4 billion in exports each year, selling over 1,000,000 tonnes of Irish meat to 75 countries around the world.”


Diversification of export markets has been a key focus for the industry in recent years. "Without doubt, a major proportion of those exports goes to the UK and other EU countries but there is an increasing focus on diversification of markets," says Healy. "The industry is reaching out to markets around the globe. For example, 40 per cent of pig-meat exports go to markets outside Europe. "

And there has been a shift away from commodity exports. “The industry has worked hard on its offering to consumers over the years. This has resulted in Irish meat being listed in supermarkets across Europe. In fact, Irish beef is listed more than beef of any other origin in European supermarkets.

“Over the past 15 years, enormous effort has gone into premiumisation of the Irish meat offering, and the industry is now selling to top supermarket chains and food service operators in Europe and beyond.”

Securing international market access forms a major part of MII's work, according to Healy. "We work in partnership with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Bord Bia on that. And the industry responds to consumer preferences in each country to achieve the best return for each cut of meat."

Despite the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry is enjoying good market returns. “Prices are quite strong at the moment. We have seen beef prices hitting a six-year high and lamb prices reached record levels. Pig meat has been performing strongly over the past 18 months as well.

“The industry is now all about premiumisation and securing the best prices from customers for a quality offering. This translates into better returns for producers. Of course, that is influenced by global markets.”

Brexit uncertainty

Brexit has presented challenges, however. “The entire process, from the original vote to the Christmas Eve deal, created huge uncertainty for business, producers and everyone involved in the food chain,” says Healy. “There has been some diversification away from the UK market since the vote, but it remains our closest market. It is a high value market, and it is a deficit market with very large import requirements.

“While the industry continues to work hard on diversification, we will do everything possible to hold on to our share of the UK market.”

Climate change and sustainability are also major issues.

“Irish meat and livestock production systems already have strong environmental credentials in comparison to competitors around the globe,” he says. “But we can’t afford to sit back. There is more work to do. The meat sector has to be part of the solution. We are focused on ensuring that our product is as sustainable as possible in its impact on the environment and use of natural resources.”

He points out that, through the Bord Bia Origin Green programme, more than 212,000 carbon footprint calculations have taken place on 50,000 beef farms around the State. MII member firms are supporting partners in the Teagasc Signpost Farms initiative. "That's a major platform for climate action in agriculture and it is translating research into practice at farm level.

“Many of the solutions lie in research in areas such as breeding and genetics, grassland management, production efficiency, and feed additives that can help. Ultimately, food should be produced where it can be produced most sustainably. Curtailing production here and moving it elsewhere on the globe where it is less sustainable makes no sense.”