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Dublin: 12 °C Wednesday 23 October, 2019
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Column: Horse meat scandal reveals fatal flaw in our whole food industry

It suits big food retailers to push cheap products, but the end result is an insult to the Irish farmers who worked so hard to build up the industry, writes Seamus Sheridan

Image: Joe Gough via Shutterstock

A STORY WHICH started with mention of DNA traces of horse meat in the binder or filler that was added to Irish beef burgers is now turning into a full blown crisis.

The Government got the response wrong from the start by depicting it as a problem with one imported ingredient when, in truth, we had Irish companies selling a product as Irish beef when it was in fact a good chunk of imported horse. Through that fraud, the public here and abroad are going to ask if they can really believe the Irish meat industry about what it says it is delivering on the label on its food wrapper or tin.

The Food Safety Authority has uncovered more than horsemeat in Irish beef burgers; they have exposed a flawed system that is in need of radical change.

Poisoning our reputation

We are the garden of Europe and our food industry has grown dramatically in recent years. We produce enough food for 30 million people and export over 90 per cent of our beef, yet we are casually poisoning our reputation by supporting big multinational retailers and distributors ahead of farmers and consumers.

It suits the big food retailers to push cheap food products, but that inevitably leads to certain producers cutting corners so they can make some short term savings. That is an insult to Irish farmers who worked so hard to build up this industry. If we are to regain our international ‘food island’ image, we need to change the way the whole industry works, from farm gate right down to the table fork. The real question is why the Irish Farmers Association and other interest groups have allowed this to happen. It is as if the large producers and retailers have a hold on the whole industry, with their large advertising and promotional budgets.

Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney certainly seems to be on the side of big business. He has been branding this as a Polish problem rather than acknowledging that at its core this is a crisis centred on the mislabelling of what is in Irish food products. Ignoring that reality is misleading the Irish people and is insulting to our EU neighbours. Does he really believe that large-scale manufacturers have no responsibility to stand over the content of their produce? How can he stand over Polish meat of whatever variety being sold as Irish beef?

It is not good enough to let multinationals pick and choose which one of their products partake in state-funded quality assurance schemes. They should be part of our effort to create a sustainable and successful agricultural sector – otherwise they can stay out. Our farmers don’t have the luxury of this choice – their farms are either in or out. They have had to watch other actors in the food chain grow rich as their margins are increasingly squeezed.

Civic markets and co-operatives

Larry Goodman’s companies, along with a handful of other Irish meat processors, are the primary benefactors of the tax payers’ money that has also gone into Bord Bia’s marketing of Irish food abroad. Unless we get some simple and truthful answers about what the company was up to and end their strangle hold on the industry, Bord Bia’s Quality Assurance Scheme and ‘Origin Green’ campaigns will lie in tatters.

If only we had a dynamic and future-looking Minister for Agriculture who would see this food industry’s crisis as a chance to leave a legacy of higher employment, sustainability and quality in Irish food.

We need funding for civic markets in all our country’s large towns and cities. We need new co-operatives to help small farmers get the same marketing benefits that large producers enjoy. We need to put the fight against obesity at the heart of our food system and stop supporting suppliers looking to make a fast buck from selling products high in fats salt and sugar. We need to allow our traditional mixed farms wholesale direct to retailers at a local level. We also need to support our local abattoirs and wonderful network of craft butchers. There are so many opportunities for Ireland in markets where quality and taste are foremost.

We produce the world’s finest milk and our beef, lamb and fish are fantastic. We have the research and capabilities to take a substantial share in the increasing market for quality food. It is time we had the producers and exporters that are committed to finding the best price for our country’s produce, rather than being dragged down when we sell our products as the lowest common denominator.

Seamus Sheridan is the Green Party’s Spokesperson for Food, Founder of Sheridans Cheese and former member of Safefood.

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Seamus Sheridan

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