Taste test: can you tell Irish smoked salmon from smoked Irish salmon?

I LIKE my food just a little bit too much as anyone who has seen me recently will know.

I’m eating too much of it and not necessarily the right type of stuff either. I’m not exercising enough to rectify the damage, especially as I never had a particularly fast metabolism to start with, let alone cope with the impact of ageing.

I don’t just eat anything: taste, as well as quantity, is a serious consideration when it comes to decisions as to what to buy or prepare. Price is often a very significant factor, as I know it is for many people. Value for money is a major issue.

At a conference organised by the Food Safety Authority last Wednesday I was forced to ask myself some other questions about my habits.

Do I consciously seek out Irish food and pick it in preference to food coming from other countries? Do I think enough about the quality of whatever I choose to eat? Are the two linked?

There are good reasons behind what might be called “patriotic purchasing” of food. There are more than 150,000 people employed directly in the Irish food industry and many more with jobs indirectly related to dealing with it. Buying Irish-made food gives practical support to them.

There is also an issue with freshness. Buying unprocessed food, such as meat, that has been slaughtered in Ireland, should, in theory, lead to the optimum time in bringing it from farm to table, getting the best flavour and taste from it if prepared properly.

There is also an environmental benefit: less carbon is emitted if food is consumed locally instead of being air-freighted or shipped from abroad. The benefit to the exchequer should not be underestimated either. It is estimated that more than €700m was spent in the sterling area north of our border this year. That is money lost to our economy, which could lead to further job losses, and a loss of VAT to the state, accounting for around €100m.

However, “patriotic purchasing” of Irish food products is not always possible. Unfortunately, an Irish brand name or company name on a product does not necessarily tell you where the main raw materials came form or where “added value” processing took place. Your “Irish” biscuits, jam, cakes, sugar or even sandwiches may not be what they seem.

The classic example is Siúcra. As almost everyone knows this is the Irish word for sugar. When I was a child primary schools taught us the location of the country’s four sugar plants as an essential fact during geography. Now all four plants have been closed. The old Irish Sugar Co is now known as Greencore, but one of its main businesses is the making of ready-made sandwiches. These are made in Britain and shipped around that country and also exported to Ireland. It was not economically feasible for Greencore to buy sugar from Irish processors and sell here and abroad. As a result sugar beet production in Ireland has become extinct.

But Greencore continues to buy sugar elsewhere – usually Germany – and sell it in the Irish market under the famous Siúcra brand name which it owns. It is quite entitled to do this, but do consumers know it? Or do they care? Gateaux cakes were made in Dublin for many years, but now they are made in Poland and brought back to Ireland. Apparently this is cheaper than making them here.

Jacobs is one of the iconic Irish food brands, as is Fruitfield, but it is now manufactured outside Ireland, again because it is far cheaper to do so. You could argue what does it matter that “Old Time Irish Marmalade” is made overseas, as long as it tastes right and is affordable? After all, we don’t grow oranges in Ireland; all that was ever done was apply an Irish recipe, if there was ever anything particularly unique in that, to the making of a jam.

It is all an issue of labelling – and a set of European laws and regulations that are baffling and not necessarily helpful.

Dermot Jewell of the Consumer Association of Ireland was very interesting about this at the conference on Wednesday. He pointed out some of the tricks of labelling the other day. Spot the difference please between “Irish smoked salmon” and “smoked Irish salmon”. And think of what it means to buy “Irish carved ham” or “carved Irish ham”.

The placing of words can be the giveaway as to whether the main material is Irish or whether the process applied to the making of the product takes place in Ireland. The regulations allow that a piece of chicken can be imported, but once some breadcrumb is thrown around it, it can be sold on the basis of being Irish-prepared food.

No wonder farmers are frustrated. They are bound by EU regulations that they feel are onerous. While most don’t complain – realising it maintains high standards of food – they have grounds to moan if they feel the same rules are not enforced as rigorously in other EU countries, particularly north of border.

In particular, to follow Bord Bia quality assured standards they keep about 5,000 less chickens in a shed than the EU average. Better food costs more.

They have particular concerns about Brazilian beef and Thai chicken, for example. No wonder it is cheaper if the animals are grown and slaughtered in conditions that would never be considered acceptable in Ireland. Irish consumers may complain that the prices of domestically produced food are too high, but part of the reason is that is not as mass produced as imported food. There is a trade-off involved: are people prepared to take a chance on imported cheap food that may be stuffed with antibiotics and other drugs and which gathers bacteria during its journey to Ireland?

Are they satisfied that Irish food is produced to standards that seems to justify what might be called premium prices? And is it truly Irish? There are so many variables it is almost impossible for a consumer to discern the product’s country of origin.

LABELLING should help, but it doesn’t always. Apparently, most people look for the “best before” date and little else. If they look at the small print it may be to see the fat, sugar or salt content (and in the case of processed foods those details can be frightening). Even basic products such as bread include ingredients from a variety of sources and countries.

There is also a danger involved in food nationalism. While we should promote Irish food products and Irish cuisine to tourists coming to Ireland, we don’t want all countries taking a similar protectionist approach.

We export about 80% of the food we produce. When you consider most EU countries are net food importers, that emphasises the importance of exports to us. Many other countries cannot become self-sufficient, but if they were to follow a similar policy of “home produced first” then our exports would suffer badly, with dire financial consequences. We have to accommodate imports of food if we want to continue the balance of trade working in our favour.

But it raises the interesting question as to why Irish food remains popular abroad if its price in Ireland suggests it is so expensive to produce here. The price the farmer gets is fairly transparent and seems no better than that achieved north of the border, for example. That suggests retailers, particularly foreign multinational supermarkets using euro purchasing power to buy cheaply in Britain, are taking big profit margins on their sale of Irish food.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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