A special category for baby food will be a feature of this year’s Blas na hÉireann Irish National Food Awards in Dingle, Co Kerry, over the first weekend in October.
It follows the development of an exciting new sensory analysis programme by the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences at University College Cork.
Blas na hÉireann chairman Artie Clifford said this was an entirely different system of evaluation than the one used for other food products, as quality baby food typically doesn’t contain ingredients such as salt and sugar.
Mr Clifford said there had been huge growth in this area as time-poor parents struggle with convenience versus quality in the foods they give their babies at this vital stage of development.
This special category for babies and toddlers will be judged separately by a panel of UCC sensory analysts overseen by Dr Joe Kerry.
It will recognise and reward the best tasting and most nutritious baby foods made in the country.
“This can help reassure parents that they are giving their ‘treasures’ only the very best, when they are under time pressure to cook themselves,” he said.
The baby food category is the latest innovation in the Blas na hÉireann Irish National Food Awards, which were first held in 2008.
Overall, the aim is to celebrate and reward the very best tasting Irish food and drink products, and the passionate producers involved.
Those who established the awards wanted to ensure that quality benchmarks could be established for Irish produce on a level playing field.
Some 400 entries were received for the inaugural awards. Over 2,200 entries have been entered this year in over 40 categories ranging from chocolate to cheese.
The scientific element of the awards is managed, co-ordinated and implemented by the Food Packaging Group, led by Dr Kerry, at the School of Food and Nutritional Sciences in UCC.
Over 60 judges in two tranches will blind-taste the products, which will be rated using sensory analysis. The first round of judging will take place next month.
Products will be shortlisted by September. The final judging will be on October 3 with the awards being presented in Dingle on October 5.
The event takes place during Dingle Peninsula Food Festival (October 4-6), which was founded in 2007 to showcases the quality of locally produced food.
Mr Clifford said the Blas na hÉireann Committee is very happy with the level of entries for the national awards.
“I feel we have more producers than we had before, but with smaller numbers of entries from companies who are more target specific now,” he said.
All products entered must be submitted by the producer, regardless of whether the product is made for own label or is branded.
Winning at the Blas Awards has made significant business differences to winners as various testimonials on its website show.
The winner of multiple awards for her pies, Una Martin, Ballincollig, Co Cork, the supreme champion last year, said Blas na hÉireann and the title she won had made it possible for a small producer like herself to think big.
“Promoting high quality Irish food with the backing and recognition for all at Blas is an honour and drives Una’s Pies even further to maintain and constantly improve standards,” she said.
Nicola Smyth, Big Red Kitchen, Stamullen, Co Meath, said success at Blas na hÉireann gives a tremendous boost to any producer, particularly small producers.
“It is a massive vote of confidence from your peers and the experts within the food industry.
“Winning two gold awards (raspberry desert sauce and lemon curd) and being chosen as the Best Artisan Producer, not only changed how our customers and how the industry viewed Big Red Kitchen, but it changed how I viewed it as well,” she said.
John Paul O’Connor, Sásta Sausages, Cromane, Co Kerry, said winning three awards in 2012 (gold for best emerging Kerry producer and bronze and silver in the black pudding category) helped to open up a whole new world to his business.
“Not only have we got enquiries from all over Ireland but from all over Europe and further afield. We are looking forward to a very promising future,” he said.
Mr Clifford said the awards, which represent the biggest blind-tasting of produce in the country, were set up by producers for producers.
Studies show that 69% of all Irish shoppers will buy a product that bears a quality mark. Blas na hÉireann is seen as one of the highest standards of quality.
Some 54% of all Irish shoppers are aware of the mark and will purchase a product bearing a Blas na hÉireann mark.
“Therefore, if a product is recognised and is seen to have won gold, silver or bronze awards or any other key awards, it will certainly increase sales,” he said.
The Blas na hÉireann Committee has meanwhile identified a further need to support producers after the awards.
A Business Development Team has been set up to support and help producers through a series of workshops and networking opportunities to move from producing a successful product to building a profitable and sustainable business.