Leading businessman accuses FSA of 'bullying' over label row

Dale Farm chief executive David Dobbin has accused the Food Standards Agency of 'bullying' firms involved in the food industry 
Connla Young

A leading businessman has accused the Food Standards Agency of “bullying” after it emerged there are plans to ban firms based in the north form marketing their produce as Irish.

David Dobbin, Group chief executive of Dale Farm, said the proposals had left him and other senior business figures angry and branded the FSA as the ‘Department of sales prevention’.

The businessman, who until recently served as the chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drinks Association, hit out after the Irish News revealed this week that FSA ‘country of origin labelling guidance’ recommends that food products from the north should only be labelled as Northern Irish or UK.

The agency has contacted local council environmental health officials who in turn are notifying businesses that may be impacted.

If a ban is imposed it could end up costing local firms millions of pounds in rebranding and marketing.

The controversial move comes in the middle of the NI Tourism backed Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink which aims to promote local produce.

Dale Farm is the north’s largest dairy company and employs more than 1,000 people.

The FSA is funded by Stormont's DUP run Department of Finance and Personnel.

Mr Dobbin said many local businesses have been left reeling by the development.

He said that northern businesses were already under pressure from producers in the south who want their products removed from shops.

“It’s bad enough Irish farmers and producers are doing that but then to have our own Food Standards Agency and environmental health officers do their job for them, I would use the word shocking,” he said.

“I am very angry.

“There is no legal confirmation that the are even right.”

The leading businessman said that during a recent meeting FSA representatives told a delegation from the NIFDA that they will only be allowed to use the word Irish on labels if they are given consent by the Irish government.

“They said to us in the meeting the only way they would allow is to describe ourselves as Irish is if we have permission from the Irish government to do that,” he said.

“Every person in Northern Ireland can describe themselves as Irish if they want and if an Irish person wants to make something they can describe it as Irish.”

He added: “I think we are being bullied”.

He described FSA officials as “over zealous” and said its intervention is “unwelcome and unnecessary”.

Earlier this week the FSA sent a letter to stakeholder groups outlining its version of events.

SDLP assembly member Dolores Kelly said she does not accept “what they (FSA) are saying”.

“It seems they are scurrying about and trying to muddy the waters in terms of culpability,” she said.

“I think it really is disgraceful.”

Ms Kelly also questioned whether the controversy arose because “someone fell asleep at the wheel” or was caused by “mischievousness by ministers at executive level”.

She also queried why the label plans have been put on hold until after the May elections.

“Is still has not been explained to me why the time frame of the election has been brought into play if there are solid grounds,” she said.

Mr Dobbins spoke out after NIFDA executive director Michael Bell said he is “very concerned” about the development.

Earlier this week the chief executive of Portadown based Irwin’s Bakery said the proposed new regulations will damage local businesses.

A spokeswoman for the Foods Standards Agency said it continues “to advise district councils on a case by case basis taking into account all labelling information on the product”.

“The FSA’s advice on using the additional voluntary term ‘Irish’ on food produced in Northern Ireland is that it may be misleading to consumers as this term is also used to describe another member state of the EU.

“However, whether or not the use of the term ‘Irish’ in food labelling is misleading, can only be determined by a court of law.”

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