Why pick a fight with Aldi and Lidl in your recent advertising?

We wanted to highlight the fact that both of these retailers are using fictitious dairies and creameries in their branding. Retailer-owned brands are destroying margins but Lidl and Aldi go further as they use fictitious dairies and creameries which are designed to mislead consumers.

There seems to be some confusion that there is a Northern-processed milk versus southern issue going on with the advert?

No. That ship has sailed a long time ago. We want to highlight the fact that these fictitious marketing names such as Clonbawn Irish Dairy and Coolree Creamery are not the actual dairies/creameries supplying the milk at all.

OK, but your advert stated ‘To be sure your milk is sourced from the Republic of Ireland, use ‘Look for the NDC logo’ – that immediately suggests a North-South issue?

We wanted to give the consumer some guidance and the National Dairy Council (NDC) logo is what we have. The NDC rules refer to ROI (produced and packed in ROI) but that was not intended to be the focus of the advert.

OK, but the reference to milk from the Republic of Ireland – what relevance has it then?

The NDC and the National Milk Agency (NMA) provide important roles to liquid suppliers. The NMA manages regulation while the NDC is responsible for the promotion of all dairy products.

That’s fine but if Northern milk can’t get approved, then you automatically discriminate against Northern milk and they have sought to get into the NDC and they say all their ROI farms are Bord Bia-approved. Why can’t the assurance cross the border?

OK, but that’s a matter for the board of the NDC and the board of Bord Bia. We certainly don’t want to be upsetting Strathroy suppliers and we are happy to engage with them to see how we can improve margins for all farmers. Liquid milk farmers have to commit to milking 365 days of the year and if we don’t get a good margin above manufacturing milk, we won’t be able to stay in business. That’s the core issue here.

Is a bigger issue not the one of ‘own’ brand milk being sold at a big discount to co-op branded milk? Own-brand milk now accounts for over 80% of liquid milk sales.

I agree. “Own” brand sales are the main issue, but our only point of differentiation and reassurance for consumers is that our milk carries the NDC logo and is from farms regulated by the National Milk Agency. This means that farmers have a specific contract to produce milk over the winter months and the country has a vision for what volume of milk is going to be produced so there will always be milk on the shelves. You can’t just turn on and off the supply of milk. There is a long lag period and there needs to be some overall plan in place.

OK. So we agree ‘own’ brand is core to the problem of lower margins for farmers but I’ll say farmers still have a say around the boards of the big three suppliers of liquid milk outside of Strathroy? And Irish farmers supply Strathroy – some may be willing to work together with you, for liquid milk farmers to protect margins for suppliers where premium is eroded completely?

Yes, farmers have a say in decision-making but the reality of business is bigger and more complicated than that. There are competition rules and different processors have different priorities but the liquid milk supplier, who has to commit to milking all year round, is suffering.

However, we are working with farmers to try to change this trend. We need Minister McConalogue to bring forward legislation that delivers a food ombudsman with real power to make the overall food supply chain more equitable for primary producers.

Keith, it’s obvious your frustration at low margins in liquid milk have driven you to highlight one aspect of the journey of milk from parlour. It has worked – it has brought liquid milk on to the agenda. What else can we expect?

Unfortunately, liquid milk is not the only category of farm produce that is suffering due to the erosion of farmer margins by retailers. The IFA plans to continue its campaign to highlight this issue across other farm produce categories. This has to stop – otherwise, the inevitable outcome will be the exit of farmers from fresh produce markets.

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