Integrity of Irish food - Credibility cannot be put at risk

THERE are many, many issues surrounding food. For us, in a land of abundance, it has become one of society’s dividing lines, wavering between an ostentatious fashion statement and a sustenance issue.

In Ireland food has become primarily a concern of business, treated as a commodity, with consumer and environmental interests too often taking second place.

This imbalance grows the more we depend on industrialised and ambiguously labelled food.

Walk down any street and you will see just one of the consequences of this shift towards unlimited access to high-energy fats and sugars. Already some 24% of Ireland’s population is obese. Medical professionals predict that within 20 years half of Irish people will be obese, in line with the US epidemic. Just yesterday we were warned of a burgeoning diabetes epidemic.

Yesterday too businessman and chef Richard Corrigan entered the fray in his usual forthright way. He advocated that An Bord Bia should be abolished because, he said, the board’s quality assurance scheme does not ensure products are Irish.

He pointed out that An Bord Bia is prevented by EU law from promoting exclusively Irish produce in the domestic market and this means that the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme can apply to produce from any EU country. It can be used as a flag of convenience for food producers anywhere from Sofia to Helsinki.

In a country where there is a ready market for Chinese carrots, apples from California and chicken from God knows where, this may seem unimportant but it is not. This country still has, despite the huge difficulties faced in the agri sector today, the capacity to be one of Europe’s foremost suppliers of premium quality food but if our credibility as food producers is undermined that position will change.

Foot and mouth, avian and swine flu scares, along with contaminated pork scandals, have done huge reputational damage to Ireland’s food producers. Poor, unimaginative standards have played a part too.

“Ireland has a unique capacity to produce the safest and highest quality food in Europe instead we are sailing in the opposite direction,” was how Corrigan put it yesterday.

This policy will not create or sustain jobs and we need to set different target for ourselves. If we are to recover from today’s great difficulties vibrant farm and food sectors committed to the highest standards will have to perform at full capacity and anything that prevents that happening must be changed.

There is hardly a public body today that is not facing a root-and-branch review. How wonderful it would be if such a process could be brought to bear on our farm and food sectors and the Government agencies that work in those areas. If we revive these flagship sectors that have fallen foul of globalisation, supermarket conglomerates and fashion we will be well on the way to solving some of our problems. However, no one else will do it for us, we must do it ourselves.

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