IRELAND’S FAILURE TO DOMESTICATE THE UK FOOD MARKET

As I was writing about Brexit earlier, I was thinking upon the position that Irish farmers now find themselves in. Elsewhere I have said that it is the single most important issue facing Irish farming since the Emergency [that is World War Two for readers outside of Ireland]. I have also recently read it described as the greatest challenge facing Irish farming since the Republic came into existence.

Somehow there was an inevitability about the latest crisis to hit Irish farming. If it was not Brexit it would have been triggered by a proliferation of international trade deals that exposed Irish farmers to the chill winds of free-trade. It may well happen for UK farmers post-Brexit, but at least UK farmers got to vote in the Referendum; unlike their Irish counterparts who are just being taken along for the ride.

As I stated in my earlier post ‘Post-Brexit delusions about deregulation’, I can see British farmers responding to the threat from cheaper imports by creating comprehensive unique-selling-points for their products. By so doing they will self-impose greater regulation upon themselves than what they lose from leaving the EU. It is perverse but quite probable. A major part of such a market-driven strategy will be to fully exploit ‘local’ and ‘British’. And therein is the crux of the matter for Irish farmers, they are neither ‘British’ or ‘local’; although one could argue that Wexford is closer to London than any part of Scotland.

Now, for historical reasons, I know the UK food markets reasonably well. I was taught at College to walk the food aisles and have been doing so ever since. And as I have alluded to frequently, I am shocked by how poor the presence of Irish produce is. As far as consumer-facing, visibly-Irish products go, Ireland is a one trick pony, Kerrygold butter. Yes, Ornua controls a major cheese brand in Pilgrims’ Choice but you would have to be knowledgeable to know that it is Irish.

As for Irish beef, it is only in three supermarkets [Asda, Sainsbury and Tesco] and even then, it fills the ‘budget’ and ‘standard’ shelves. Again, as I have said before, Irish beef finds its way into mince, meatballs and burgers. It is not the premium, grass-fed product that Irish farmers envisage or expect. They frequently send well-reared stock off to the factories that grade well. They are also likely to quality assured. And they end up on the bottom shelves of UK supermarkets or in burgers served up by the burger chains. If one is at the foundations of such a food chain, can one really expect to receive a premium price? And if you are so positioned, far better that you are a low-cost Brazilian rancher than a small-scale, Irish family farm.

Just why has Ireland ended up in such a weak market position in the UK? It is after all Ireland’s major market and it is one that it is highly dependent on; a fact that it will not be able to change in a short space of time before and after the reality of Brexit. With such a dependency, it is truly shocking that the country has allowed its food products to become [Kerrygold apart] nearly invisible in the UK. It is a marketing failure of truly awesome proportions.

One can probably find rational explanations for such a situation. Possibly the supermarkets have not wanted to promote Irish beef [after all British beef holds something of a special place in the minds of UK consumers similar to ‘English strawberries’]. Has the status quo been perfectly acceptable to the factories? Has it suited them to operate a simplified high-throughput, low-margin-per-head model; not least in the face of a supply base that offers them a far from homogenous raw material. They must also deal with the purchasing weight of the few buyers from the retailers and burger chains. And as for cheese, maybe it is a sound strategic choice not to put Irish front and centre when it comes to promoting Irish-origin cheddar in the UK. All of them are interesting explanations but they all leave the Irish farmer devilishly exposed to what Brexit might well usher in.

What I cannot understand is how so little has been done to develop Irish products for the UK markets. And by that, I mean products that would have created a following and a brand loyalty that goes beyond the UK-living Irish community. France does it, Italy does it, and others do it. In my childhood years, New Zealand Anchor butter was iconic [and how NZ must now regret having sold off the rights to use the Anchor brand to Arla Foods] and NZ lamb had a great reputation’ Likewise Argentina for its beef. And the owners of the Dewhurst chain of high-street butchers were ranching and processing across South America. They even owned the Blue Star Line to ship their beef back to the UK. And then as now, if you wanted cheese, you thought of France. Why then did the development of Irish products stall after Kerrygold?

The lack of recognized products and brands is now going to make dealing with Brexit that much more difficult for the Irish farming industry. Just how much easier would it have been if the UK consumer has developed an affinity over the years for an array of Irish food products? Due to location alone, British consumer should be thinking that Irish is not British but it is local and it is produced to standards that are clearly akin to those employed by Britain’s own farming industry. Food miles are obviously lower and there is a strong, untold story about Irish family farms and rural Ireland. The story is there but the book remains unpublished. And sadly, when it is, where are the products to accompany the marketing story? This is, and it should be recognized as one of the great mysteries of food marketing; just how did the Irish fail to ‘domesticate’ the UK market?

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