THE first weekend in October might seem a long time away, but it is currently very much in the thoughts of over 2,000 Irish food producers.
That’s because Tuesday, June 17, is the final closing date for entries in the seventh annual Blas na hÉireann-Irish Food Awards.
All Irish producers, north and south, have been invited to submit products that are commercially available to the public.
The awards were set up to reward and support the best of Irish produce and the passionate, talented producers involved.
Award winners get to display the Blas na hÉireann symbol on their products which independent research shows leads to an increase in sales.
All entries are blind tasted in two tranches by a team of over 350 judges including top chefs, journalists, industry experts, home-cooks and academics.
The judging system was developed and is overseen each year by Joe Kerry and his team from the School of Food and Nutritional Science at University College Cork.
The award winners in over 80 food categories will be presented at a ceremony in Dingle, on October 4 to coincide with the peninsula’s hugely popular food and wine festival.
In addition, Bord Bia sponsors two key awards, the Blas na hÉireann Supreme Champion and the Best Artisan producer.
The Blas awards are the biggest blind tasting of produce in the country, and the criteria on which the product is judged, as well as the judging system itself, is now recognised as international industry standard.
Last year, Olivia Curran, a chocolatier from Monilea, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, took the top award. More than 20 producers from Cork won gold, silver and bronze medals for 40 of the best tasting products in the country, with locally grown ingredients.
Blas chairman Artie Clifford said winning at the event means double digit growth for some, particularly those who use the Blas quality mark on their products.
“We know from research that not only is the symbol widely recognised by shoppers, it also encourages them to buy products that carry the Blas accreditation. It is their guarantee of top-class quality,” he said.
Running a small to medium sized food business is not all sweetness and joy, however, as the findings of a recent Blas na hÉireann survey disclosed.
It found that 70% of these producers feel that a lack of financial advice and support is the biggest challenge they face in growing their businesses.
The survey also found that distribution is a major problem for 65% of producers, not only nationally but internationally.
Government agencies scored very well in the survey, however, with positive response from producers, small and large.
They recognised the support they get from County Enterprise Boards, Bord Bia, Enterprise Ireland and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, with Teagasc, BIM and Udaras ranking well within their specific areas.
Artie Clifford, a former producer in the seafood sector, said unfortunately the problem seems to be that the impact of agency support is not being fully leveraged. This is because of difficulties accessing financial advice and support on the one hand and being able gain distribution to new markets on the other.
“Blas would be delighted to work with Government agencies to address these issues swiftly in order to support the food producers that have inspired and fuelled this fast growing and vitally important sector of our economy,” he said.
Mr Clifford said for smaller producers in particular, financial issues are not just about accessing additional funding.
They are as much about getting paid on time and been given fairer credit terms by the larger retailers.
Agencies, local and national should be in a position to give financial advice to producers on a one to one basis.
This advice should embrace everything from developing business plans to working out production costs and forecasting accurately the amount of financial investment needed for expansion. It could also help people on how to approach and work with financial institutions and retailers.&
As a result of feedback, the Blas na hÉireann committee has identified a number of areas where it can help producers further develop their business.
In addition to a development programme — a series of one day seminars for small to medium sized businesses — it has created an online platform forum for producer to share ideas and thoughts.
Blas na hÉireann hopes that this forum can help producers to share information about logistics, production facilities and the financial and practical aid that is available.