Irish Co-operative Organisation Society Limited (ICOS) president Pat McLoughlin has slammed the new “quality package” report on marketing standards published by the European Commission.
Mr McLoughlin said that the suggestion to introduce a legal basis for compulsory “place of farming” labelling could be hugely damaging for Irish dairy exports.
Mr McLoughlin said: “Ireland is a large exporter of quality dairy products, with some 85% of all dairy produce exported. The value of these dairy exports is over €2 billion a year and our most important dairy trading partners are in Europe.
“We are extremely proud of, and stand over the quality of Irish dairy products. However, some of the countries into which we sell our cheese and butter have growing food nationalism movements, and we stand to lose out to an enormous degree if in those countries, with particular products, compulsory labelling is enforced.”
ICOS and Ireland’s other dairy groups have always been supportive of voluntary labelling. For instance, neither Irish nor British dairy groups have ever criticised labels such as the National Dairy Council’s Farmed in the Republic of Ireland, or the little red tractor which Britain’s Assured Food Standards places on its home-produced goods.
The debate, which preceded the imminent introduction of “place of farming” labels, focused primarily on their mandatory status across the EU. The argument is that the move will promote nationalistic sentiment, and could suggest to the consumer that production standards vary from one EU state to another.
ICOS dairy policy executive TJ Flanagan said: “All of the EU states abide by the same standards. If you introduce labelling that might be interpreted by some consumers as suggesting that there is something wrong with products from another jurisdiction, then that is wrong in our view.
“We view this labelling as an attack on the common market. The legal framework has been introduced now, so there will be no further debate. We can expect to see this labelling in shops within the next couple of months, starting with dairy products.
“The minister needs to be very vocal on this immediately, and seek the support of his colleagues in the Council of Ministers. There was a suggestion in the past that this label could be voluntary.
“One of the main concerns for us is the UK market, where the little red tractor scheme has already had a lot of impact on consumer choices. Putting a tricolour on a product could open us up to being shot down by the consumer. We feel that this is an attack upon the common market ethos.”
The European Commission publication on marketing standards said the labelling move will “satisfy the consumer’s demands for transparency and information”. It also noted that the first sector to be subjected to the new requirement will be dairy.
Mr McLoughlin urged Agriculture Minister Brendan Smith to rally support around the Council table, particularly from the Dutch and the Danes, to have the proposal rejected.