Highland sheep’s seat of honour in elite European club

LABELS, labels everywhere, but what do they actually mean?

Lovers of speciality European foods search out PGI or PDO labels.

They find about three out of four of these labels on more than 1,000 products from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and France.

Some of Europe’s best known cheeses, like Dutch Gouda and Edam, British Blue and White Stilton, and Greek Feta, are also adorned with these markers.

They search for PGI (Protected Geographical Indication), to find products linked to a geographical area (where at least one production step has taken place in that particular area).

They search for PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) to find products produced, processed and prepared in a given geographical area, using specific traditional techniques.

Lovers of speciality foods also seek out Traditional Specialities Guaranteed (TSG) labelled items, for their traditional composition and techniques of production. Six British foods have been labelled TSG since 2009, including Traditionally Farmed Gloucestershire Old Spot Pork.

These sought-after labels could soon be on 11 more British products, which are either at the application or publication stage, including Northern Ireland’s Armagh Bramley Apples and Lough Neagh Eels.

Meanwhile, the Republic of Ireland, which exports more than 80% of the food it produces strangely sits at the bottom of the speciality food labelling league. Europe has 505 foods with the PDO label, 465 with PGI, and 25 with TSG.

Ireland has just four registered products. Imokilly Regato Cheese is a PDO product, and Clare Island Salmon, Timoleague Brown Pudding and Connemara Hill Lamb are PGI products. All four of these awards were all truly great achievements.

The Connemara Hill lamb designation was achieved in 2007 — a breakthrough for the 98 farmers in the Connemara Hill Lamb group, who supply 2,000 to 3,000 lambs per year. The award was hugely appreciated.

I spoke to their director, Martin Kinneavy of Cornamona, Co Galway, about the lamb’s PGI status. I asked him if it was difficult to achieve.

Martin Kinneavy said: “It takes five to seven years to get it, there is a lot of correspondence over and back with the Department and the EU. It might just be over one point at a time, but there is a lot of to and fro like that.

“It also involved a lot of research on the history of the hill sheep here in Connemara. We had to prove they were indigenous to the area. We also had to research their diet, the grasses and heather. You basically have to prove that the blackface horned ewe is indigenous to the region. We could get documentation from the 1700s that showed the sheep was here.”

How useful is Protected Geographical Indication status for the group?

“The status gives the lamb a definite distinction. It’s used on all our marketing material. We sell mostly in Ireland, Matt Joyce’s butchers in Galway recently started taking it, restaurants in Dublin also take it, and hopefully we’ll be starting to supply the UK soon”. He pointed out that there are some restaurants in Britain interested in the lamb, the main issue will be supply and distribution for individual restaurants abroad.

He conceded that the designation is better known on foreign markets than Irish markets, but hoped that this would eventually be a positive, with exports in mind.

According to the application for registration submitted on Connemara Hill Lamb, or ‘Uain Sléibhe Chonamara’, the product is “bred, born and reared in the designated geographical region. The lambs are light in body-weight and bone and the carcass is lean with a light cover, rose red in colour, and has a solid deep texture.”

The application also included information on geography, origin, method of production, and “links” — such as the flora grazed. The geographical section describes location, terrain and grazing. Origin refers to the history of blackface sheep in the region, including importation of some from Scotland in the post-Famine period, and the subsequent development of a distinctive strain that has adapted to survive the rugged conditions of Connemara. “The blackface breed is particularly suited to the terrain of the area, given its ability to forage better than other breeds.” These is also traceability information, regarding ear tags.

The method of production section has information on the late lambing time (April), outdoor grazing, slaughter age, shop availability (August to November) and the proximity to Connemara of the abattoir used. In the “links” section, it is stated: “The taste, flavour and colour of Connemara Hill lamb are directly linked to the local flora on which the lambs are grazed. The diet is mountain grass heather and herbs, common to the areas of production”.

The market for PGI, PDO, and TSG products in Europe is worth more than €14 billion.

Whatever the exact value, in many parts of Europe consumers look out for these markers as a quality sign. And they will be further boosted after the EU recently set aside €37 million to help promote the quality markers across 13 countries. A European Commission spokesman said: “The selected programmes cover wine, PDOs, PGIs and TSGs, organic food and farming, fruit and vegetables, horticulture, milk and milk products, olive oil, table olives, eggs, seed oil and meat.”

Ireland is not among the countries sharing this €37 million promotional fund.

Meanwhile, France will get almost €700,000 yearly to promote organic farming and food from this fund, along with €1.5 million yearly for promoting products from their outermost regions, and €180,000 yearly for promoting their PDO and PGI wines (the latter for specific promotional campaigns in Ireland and Britain).

Ireland’s scarcity of speciality labelled foods is a worry for the Government.

At the time of Connemara Hill Lamb’s achievement of PGI status, the then Agriculture Minister Mary Coughlan issued warm congratulations.

Mary Coughlan said: “I am particularly delighted to announce the registration of this unique product, unique to the far-famed Connemara region. In protecting the traditional origins of our regional foodstuffs, we strengthen our regional identities and reinforce the link that Irish people have long held with the land”.

The success of the Connemara Hill Lamb Group, the Minister hoped, would encourage other groups to register their geographical specialities. However, none have done so.

I asked the Department about this. A spokesperson said our own Irish quality markers are working well.

“The EU PDO-PGI regime is based on a group, regional or geographic principles. In general, in Ireland, production of speciality products, for example farmhouse cheeses, has been undertaken by individual local enterprises or individual producers, rather than groups. Producers may have found it difficult to see evidence that a PDO-PGI approach would ensure premium pricing of their products.”

A failed attempt was made recently to get all Irish beef categorised PGI. A Department spokesperson said: “Regulation 510/2006 only permits the name of a country to be used in exceptional cases, which makes it difficult to register a PGI application as, for example, Ireland, or Irish.

“Following consideration of the application, the commission services raised a number of points in regard to the fact that the application was not in their view sufficiently restrictive in relation to characteristics, for example specification as regards feeding and the average grazing period should be more specific. For example, grazed on limestone pastures for a minimum period, fed according to a certain regime at other times, parameters for colour of meat and fat, and ensuring that the PGI would be confined to product that did not meet such detailed specifications.”

However, four separate product categories of Welsh and Scotch beef and lamb have achieved PGI status.

Media reports indicated that the number of breeds, variations of production styles, and inclusion of dairy herd meat in Irish beef were also implicated in Ireland’s PGI application failure.

Acknowledging perhaps a ‘must try harder’ approach, a Department spokesperson said: “Food Harvest 2020 recommended that Bord Bia and industry should make the optimal use of Ireland’s protected geographical indications, and identify further designations.

“This requires increasing awareness and interest and making it easier to identify opportunities and success factors. The Department is working with Bord Bia on ways of doing this, has met with interested groups of producers, and is taking on board the views of the Taste Council, which sees potential in the area. An information note on the PDO-PGI regime, setting out the process for registration in a clearer way, has been drafted.”

So will we see more applications being made for PDO and PGI foods from Ireland over the next few years?

Or do the powers-that-be in the agri-food lobby fear that designations for some demote the image of others?

Whatever the case, with such an export-orientated agri-food sector, and an economy in tatters, getting more designations would seem an eminently sensible move for the Irish economy.


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