Kevin’s cottage pie – border friction or fiction?

Kevin’s Cottage Pie – border friction or fiction?

Brexit has generated plenty of debate. It has also created plenty of misinformation. It can be fun checking out the various claims made, whether correct or not. We would expect government channels to be accurate, not least due to the existence of the Ministerial Code.

This is the first in a series with thanks to Kevin Hollinrake MP. Kevin’s position is as Parliamentary Private Secretary to Michael Gove, in the Department of the environment and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). As a PPS, he is subject to the Ministerial Code and should therefore not mislead the House of Commons, whether deliberately or inadvertently.

Kevin campaigned to Remain. As recently as March, seemingly to question the accuracy of his opponents, he Tweeted the following:

Kevin has made at least two contributions in the House of Commons, speaking in support of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement (WA). He gives the example of the “humble” cottage pie and the problems that he suggests might be significant issues in the event of the WA not being passed.

One of these was on 15th January 2019 when he said:

“For Northern Ireland, in particular, this is a huge risk. A simple cottage pie ends up on a shop shelf in Northern Ireland having passed over the border in different forms—from livestock to end product—seven times. Each time it would have to go through a border inspection post. It is one of a number of cattle conundra that would have to be solved in a no-deal world”.

A second came on 27th March 2019:

“A humble cottage pie sat on a supermarket shelf in Northern Ireland has passed over that border typically seven times. If there were regulatory checks, they would have to happen every single time according to EU rules”.

Taking those two statements together, it might not be unreasonable to assume that “typically” cottage pies sold in supermarkets in Northern Ireland have crossed the border with Ireland seven times. Since these represent “cattle conundra” it seems safe to assume that the beef component is the most likely to have made that crossing.

One thing that we have failed to find through our research is a cottage pie brand called Humble.

As a PPS to DEFRA, Kevin must surely be speaking with authority? Kevin has not only got DEFRA behind him but is shown in the past to have had  no fewer than four Senior Parliamentary Advisers, two of who were listed as working part time, two full time. His research bank is well beyond that of the general public.

Cambridge Dictionary gives two definitions of “typically”:

“used when you are giving an average or usual example of a particular thing”

“in a way that shows all the characteristics that you would expect from the stated person, group or thing”

We simple souls among the general public might therefore assume that our authoritative MP is telling us that more than half of all cottage pies sold in Northern Ireland supermarkets contain beef that has crossed the border with the Republic of Ireland seven times.

From the environmental point of view, we might be given to believe that Kevin’s department is aware because of carbon footprints, with trucks carrying ingredients backwards and forwards across the border so frequently. There might also be hygiene issues with stock transferred between locations. For those producers whose product does cross the border, in the future we can apparently expect sanitised finger dipping in our cottage pies (subject to WTO rules on other food products).

Kevin has been invited to expand on his findings. So far, he has not taken up the opportunity to explore whether his comments are fact or fiction, so this site’s explorers have sought to identify how “typically” cottage pies are produced. Conveniently, the four top supermarket chains account for roughly 80% of Northern Ireland supermarket market share.

Top amongst these is Tesco at 35.2% whose web lists no fewer than 11 different cottage pies among their total range. Given Kevin’s qualification of “cattle conundra”, the Quorn product can be discounted, leaving 10. The flagship appears to be the `finest’ range, with the 400g pack size boasting that it is not only “produced in the UK”, “using beef from UK but also using “British Maris Pipers”. Curiously, the 800g pack size does not mention where potatoes are sourced.

The same applies to their Heart Food brand, Mini Meals as well as Classic Kitchen and both 1.5kg and 800g versions of Tesco Cottage Pie. There might be some justification for Kevin when we come to two 400g products, one of which contains British beef and is made in the UK, the other produced in Ireland but with no country listed as a source of beef.

That leaves us with the Charlie Bigham’s brand. This is made in Wells, Somerset, the product labelled as British beef, including stock. Given the distribution networks, it is hard to see that there is any reason for the product to cross borders multiple times.

It would seem that rather than “typically” crossing the border seven times, there is little evidence in the public domain to support Kevin’s assertion. There is no reason to suggest that any of the nine products listed is mislabelled.

That is 35.2% of the market out of the way. Let’s move on to Sainsbury’s which takes us cumulatively to over 50% of the market. The product range comprises 23 products. Of those, 11 have been excluded from analysis on the basis that they are either, vegetarian, dog food or more probably designed for weaning or younger children. This would seem to align with Kevin’s criterion of “typically”.

The Classic range is not only labelled as UK produced using British beef but also boasts stock produced using British bones. The same claims are made for their Mini Cottage Pie whilst Taste the Difference adds a Somerset Cheddar cheese topping. The Basics range is also UK made including British beef.

There may be a clue to where Kevin is coming from in the Be Good to Yourself product which is “Produced in Ireland, Packed in Ireland, Produced using Beef from the UK”. As a single product, it would hardly seem to be “typical”, so let’s look at the other brands.

First of these is Stamford Street, described as “Produced in Ireland, Produced using Beef from Ireland or UK”. This is in fact another Sainsbury’s own brand label, leaving us with three, one of which is Charlie Bigham’s, also sold by Tesco. Bisto Cottage Pie is an Irish made product, therefore presumably not one that has had to cross the border during production.

An atypical cottage pie is produced by Kirsty’s Kitchen, actually made in Kevin’s own constituency of Thirsk and Malton. This brand is free from gluten, wheat and dairy, intriguingly topped with sweet potato and carrot mash, including British beef.

This brings us to Asda which cumulatively takes us to over two thirds (69.5%) of the supermarket share in Northern Ireland. Of the branded products, Asda also sell Bisto as well as Weight Watchers cottage pie. The latter comes from a Sheffield based company and “Contains British beef and British mashed potatoes”.

Asda show as having 12 non-child, non-vegetarian own brand items, four of which are identified as “ Country of Origin Ireland, Packed In Ireland”. The remaining eight are all identified as UK with six of those adding further descriptors confirming the beef content as British or carrying the Red Tractor symbol (“farmed, processed and packed in the United Kingdom”).

Morrisons present a similar picture, now taking cumulative market share up to 80%. We see a reappearance of Malton’s own Kirsty’s Kitchen. A further gluten free option is Schwarz; “Produce of the EU”. The other brands are all Morrisons’ own labels, two of which are made in Ireland, the rest UK from British beef. In the premium brands, even the British ales and cheese sources are named.

Returning to Kevin’s “cattle conundra”, out of a combined 48 lines in 4 supermarket chains, only 3 might be considered as potentially meeting his suggestion of cross-border processing, at least if labelling is correct. They would have to outsell the other 37 lines by some margin to be regarded as “typical”.

Is Kevin perhaps suggesting that British supermarkets have not learned the lessons of the 2013 scandal which revealed horse meat sold as, or incorporated into, beef products? Given, Kevin’s suggestions about border checks, it may seem ironic that the sources of horse meat at the time were generally other EU countries, horse meat from Poland or Romania, re-labelled in other parts of the EU.

There is another angle that could be argued to lead to cross-border traffic, which is the distribution chain for products to reach supermarket shelves. Suppliers will typically deliver to a supermarket distribution centre or the product will be collected by the supermarket chain. This will then be disseminated through other distribution centres in the network. At some point, goods will need to cross the Irish Sea, a matter for logistic experts.

The fastest ferry routes to Northern Ireland from the mainland are from Cairnryan, Scotland, at around two hours. A balance of road and ferry times and costs may mean that it is in fact more convenient or economic to ship goods from Birkenhead to Belfast. Evidence has been found to suggest both ports are used. These routes involve no border crossings, neither would any route from a distribution centre in Belfast to any of these four supermarkets’ stores.

A further alternative is Holyhead to Dublin, another two hour crossing but with onward travel to Belfast. That route would involve a border crossing into Ireland at a sea port, therefore no reason to expect any border crossings back into the Republic.

Since he is subject to the ministerial code and has made the allegation at least twice in the House of Commons, Kevin really should explain. Is there unethical labelling practice within British supermarkets? The horse meat experience might be evidence to suggest not. If he is correct he surely has evidence to back the claim up?

If not, Kevin has an alternative option. It may be that he has inadvertently misled parliament, not once but twice, let alone perhaps in further meetings outside. If this is the case, then surely an apology to the House of Commons must be made? As a representative of DEFRA to other MPs, he should be expected to be accurate in reporting practices which may be detrimental to the environment and potentially misleading consumers over food. Even his resignation as PPS might be appropriate.

Perhaps he should also consider an apology to the leading supermarket chains operating in Northern Ireland over suggestions that their labelling might not accurately reflect where their products are sourced.

Of the supermarkets and suppliers contacted in researching this piece, some seem genuinely baffled by Kevin’s suggestions.

Will Kevin deign to eat “humble cottage pie”?