The centrality played by the cow in Irish life is hard to ignore. From our nation’s mythological cradle, right up to contemporary politics, our bovine friends have remained silent sentinels over Irish history. With Ireland lacking major mineral deposits to transition into the industrial age, cattle farming retained its lofty position in Irish life that it didn’t in other European nations.
1956 Pageant on the Life and Times of Cuchulainn featuring the Bull Donn Cuailnge
The modern disconnect between the Irish and their meat supply grew upon the advent of the Americanised supermarket model. With the centralisation of the meat industry under the yoke of prominent beef barons, as well as various crises in supply chains triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is also a very clear cut and ideologically driven plan to push for a meatless future under the banner of supposed green politics.
The shortcomings of supply chains were articulated by the trade unionist Nora Labo who portrayed the grungy world of Irish meat processing, surviving through an imported mass of migrant workers, and one where owners play fast and loose with regulations. With hiring agencies contracting out work to a polyglot taskforce of workers, often under the legal minimum wage, the situation has been hidden from view until the present crisis.
Quoting from her report on the industry the false economies are laid out in full.
“The big trade unions might not have shown enough interest for these workers for too long, and often the unions had no representatives who could communicate with the workers. It did not help either that many workers themselves initially saw these hellish jobs as temporary short-term sacrifices, before they moved on to something better or went back to their home countries, while in the meantime years and decades passed. […] On top of this, the meat plants are often situated in remote locations, far from urban centres where there is more political organisation, and close to small towns where the local population has been indifferent, if not downright hostile, to the sudden influx of foreigners. […]
Some factories, when the majority of the workforce has unionised, will simply try to recruit new people from different countries altogether. Thus, one plant now refuses to employ any new Romanian workers and instead is only trying to hire Brazilians, hoping the different nationalities won’t organise together. Unfortunately for them, the Romanians are already recruiting their new Brazilian colleagues into the union.”
For those critical of mass migration, the meat processing industry has been a quiet but major conduit for demographic change in small to medium sized towns across the country. As the example of Dawn Meat in Ballyhaunis shows, or the arrival en masse of Brazilians with Duffy Meat in Gort, the necessity for meat processing operations to hoover up labour from abroad can demographically alter a parish almost overnight to placate labour demand.
Behind the ostensible appearance of mass migration to rural towns often lies the economics of meat production. The manner in which we manage our meat production matters to our national life almost as much now as it did in the ancient court of Ailill and Medb.
Indeed, while the majority of the labour force in the meat processing industry come from Eastern bloc countries, as well as Brazil, there is a conscious push to lobby for more non-EU workers as these supply lines are drained or become unprofitable. The rapacious meat industry has been limping from one labour source to another and under the constraints of international competition is being forced to seek out ever more exotic sources of human capital.
While some trade unionists are loath to admit it, unionising a multilingual workforce operating off transient contracts in an era of open borders is effectively impossible.
Further afield, the consolidation of power in the meat industry has been objected to by the Beef Plan Movement. The group represents a collection of farmers seeking better terms on beef sales, resulting in a slew of pickets and protests nationwide. Advocating for sustainable prices in favour of producers rather than processors and retailers, the group emerged in response to various trends in the industry to thin the suckler herd and transition to more dairy farming nationally all the while reducing standards at the behest of neoliberal trade agreements.
The aims of the Beef Plan group are noble but incapicitated without being linked up to a wider populist movement in Irish life or even a worldview that tapers back the economic rapaciousness of our time.
With the prospect of post-Brexit trade deals battering the industry as well as the menace of international competition from South America, the industry and the 80,000 individuals involved in beef production stand rather precariously in a country fast forgetting the necessity of safeguarding viable supply chains.
The cartelisation of the beef industry is typified by the disproportionate sucking up of CAP payments by the larger producers like Larry Goodman’s APB Meats, with an increasing tendency of smaller actors being squeezed out. With many big time processors abusing labelling laws to falsely portray imported meat as Irish, we are witnessing the erosion of food quality standards sustained throughout the decades.
Coming down the horizon the beef industry faces the hurdle of government crackdowns under the auspices of climate action. Spearheaded by the Green Party, the Suckler Carbon Efficiency Programme aims for a cap on the suckler herd as well as a fresh new slate of regulations argued by some small producers to further tighten profit margins and curb production in general.
Central to the decapitation of the Irish beef industry is the advisory body Teagasc, heavily permeated with climate fanatics and imbued with a fervent desire to drastically reduce the number of suckler cows.
It is no wonder that with this assault on meat production there is a conscious effort at propagandising for veganism with a curious amount of dark money being flooded into advertising on the matter. A risible idea for now, the recent legislation for the consumption of mealworms by the EU early this year may be an insight as to the alternatives being pushed as meat is phased out.
We live in something of an interregnum at a point where neoliberal supply chains, stretched and abused for decades begin potentially to stutter and recede. The meld of fast consumption and cheap labour presided over by a grant system and proprietorship that prioritises big producers could very well fall down around our ears in the coming decade.
The push for a meatless future by elites is not materialising out of nothing. At present the delicate balancing act of mass migration, globalisation and relentless consumption is coming gradually undone with the pandemic merely forcing a crisis that was otherwise brewing.
A holistic approach that empowers producers over beef barons, native production over tacky imports and takes account for long term viability over fleeting profits is the only redemption for the meat industry as a whole.
An Ireland where we are deprived of a self-sustaining meat market ought to be the final nail in the coffin for neoliberal economics on this island.
Through economic myopia our meat industry is munching away into an oblivion. The complacency at which we consume meat totally blind to environmental constraints and national interests has resulted in a tilted stage that only serves to profit major beef barons as the business model slowly unwinds and hammers communities with waves of unregulated migration try to extend the lifespan on a moribund system.
The future of meat consumption may not be cheap bargain basement deals at Aldi but it doesn’t have to be bug supplements and foreign imports either. Only with a worldview that places the profit motive secondary to societal wellbeing can we maintain a durable meat industry.