Irish sheep farmers have been protesting at Dunnes Stores' outlets across the Republic, claiming the retailer is undercutting local lamb sales by stocking cheaper New Zealand meat.

It was hypocritical of Dunnes to market itself as an Irish company supporting Irish producers and jobs, they said, when actually it was doing the opposite.

"In its battle with Tesco, it claims that 'the difference is, we're Irish'," said Henry Burns of the Irish Farmers' Association. "Yet here we have the same company driving down Irish lamb prices and undermining incomes and livelihoods in the sector.

"It's incredible an Irish company should be sourcing lamb in New Zealand, transporting it 8,000 miles around the world and using it to damage top-quality Irish lamb, which is in abundant supply here."

He acknowledged that the imported lamb was "a bit cheaper" but argued the New Zealand product did not have to meet the same quality controls as in Ireland and other EU states.

The average cost of producing a lamb was €90 - but producers were being forced to sell at €70-€80 a head, claimed Burns, who also chairs the IFA national sheep committee. "Farmers can't keep going at these prices," he warned.

Dunnes declined to comment on the protests. However Burns said the chain claimed to be using the imports "to compete with the discounters" and had promised it would respond to farmers' complaints. "So far, nothing has happened and members are frustrated."

Burns added that protests would be stepped up if Dunnes did not act.