In preparing for this article, I had to ask myself would it have been much different if it was written a month ago?
Yes, we’re in the middle of the horsemeat/food labelling issue, which has rightly taken a lot of attention and industry focus. But this problem doesn’t change the fundamentals that face the food industry.
There are so many positive things to say about the food industry. It is a core part of the Irish economy, so everything must be done not only to protect what we have, but also to maximise the potential opening up due to growing consumer class populations worldwide, removal of milk quotes in 2015, innovation at farm and food industry level and the huge appetite for growth that exists in Ireland.
When a scare or scandal emerges it therefore hurts all of us, but scares should not take away from other challenges that impact on the sector and its potential. Half of all food manufactured in Ireland (by value) is sold here in Ireland, so it’s not just an export story. So, what’s being done to protect domestic suppliers in the absence of the long-promised Code of Practice for Retailers? How long can it take to introduce a code? The cost of operating in and exporting out of Ireland is seriously out of step with international comparisons; will this curtail investment and jobs?
Where are the next Kerrygolds, Taytos, Ballygowans or Cuisines de France going to come from without proper protection, a fully functioning credit environment, competitive operational costs and the full support of Government?
Labelling is very much in the cross-hairs at the moment, but one part of labelling — provenance — goes beyond meat, and care needs to be taken by suppliers and retailers not to misuse or abuse the asset that is the Irish card.
Labelling is already heavily regulated. The problem is non-compliance, albeit by a tiny minority, or lack of enforcement.
Contrary to some views, the industry is taking its social responsibility seriously. We would point to considerable self-regulation, voluntary, on-pack advisory initiatives, such as guideline daily nutritional labelling, salt reduction programmes with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, and even litter-prevention plans.
These go to show how complexly intertwined the food industry is not only with Irish economic fortunes but also consumer behaviour and societal challenges. Add to that food security, environmental sustainability, market access and so on, and you see just how important it is to get it right first time, always.
Government policy is fundamental here and industry and government working together is key. Doing so in a coherent, cross-governmental, ongoing and strategic way will help design and deliver the true potential of Irish food, as well as contribute to a healthier society. We must focus on how all elements can be pulled together to achieve the targets.
No one, not government, regulators, retailers, suppliers, primary producers nor consumers can take food for granted. And no one should assume that there aren’t consequences associated with ever cheaper food products on our shelves. Someone is paying for it.
* Colin Gordon is the chief executive of Glanbia consumer products.
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