Saturday, 16 April 2011

A David versus Goliath story

Ever seen ‘Food. Inc’? Or one of Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall's Channel 4 rantings about the immense buying power that supermarkets all too often bully their producers with? It proved a hot topic at the first For Food's Sake discussion in The Sugar Club, when the audience of over 100 hungry punters burst into spontaneous applause as Pat Smith, General Secretary of the Irish Farmers' Association, focussed in on the relationship between producers, consumers and supermarkets. 
“Challenges that both the consumer and the farmer need to tackle is the equity in the food supply chain. It’s definitely going against the farmer who spends two years rearing an animal to see all that effort put in then for the consumer to pay five to six times more than the farmer got.”
And it's not just the farmers who lose out, as Pat explained:
“I think that the consumer and the farmer get a bad deal, there is too much power being invested in a very small retail multiple. I think consumers and food production will be threatened if the current situation continues.“
Pat was quick to state the strength of Irish farmers despite the unfair position they have been put under as well as the economic climate.
“We are competitive, the farming community didn’t get the whip of the Celtic Tiger but we are resilient. We are as competitive as any producers in the world and we will continue to stay that way.”
Food journalist, Suzanne Campbell then silenced the crowd with shocking facts about the unjust distribution of wealth along the Irish food chain. For instance when you divide the profit of a chicken the farmer only gets 10%, the contractor will get 30%-40% while 50% goes to the retailer.
“The growers get 58c a bird, the cost of a packet of crisps for a live animal that is born on the farm. The retailers are getting so much more. So every single item you buy the person at the beginning at the chain gets the least amount and in terms of Irish producers its [it's] particularly bad. Irish milk can go down to 30c a litre; milk is basically cheaper than bottled water.  Again it is a live animal, it has to give birth, be fed and housed.”
 For more on this, check out Suzanne’s investigative report on plight of Irish chicken producers:

Suzanne reinforced Pat's points about the perils of the unfettered buying power of supermarkets. The likes of Tesco and Dunnes can create a one sided affair at the negotiations table and it’s not in the farmers favour.
“They force discounts on the farmers, the supermarkets will take X and leave Y, then the next time they will take it off someone else. Contracts are verbal, nothing is written down. They force buy-one get-one-free deals that can cost the producer hugely.”
It is obvious that changes need to be made to protect farmers in Ireland along with the consumer from the industrial might of supermarkets.
“There were several moves made by the old government but it will be interesting what the new coalition will do about the inaccuracies,” concluded Suzanne. “As long as the consumer has to pay more the supermarkets will keep control on how they price things and their dynamic in the food chain will continue to be too dominant.”

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Finally a good news story

It’s not too often these days we get some good news so let’s embrace what was revealed at the first For Food’s Sake evening. The Irish food industry is one area in Ireland that is experiencing growth and it turns out things are looking pretty good for artisan producers and farming. 
The man behind Connemara Smokehouse, Graham Roberts, explains why artisan producers are succeeding despite a cost conscious country.
“How come small businesses are doing well as a result of the tough times? Well people are working very hard for their money and they want to make sure when they go and buy something that they are getting good food for their money. “
When a small business starts doing well it benefits the surrounding areas in more ways than one.
“In our business we have seventeen different employees in a small area and we’ve got all those people bar one who have young families of two children upwards. That’s a fantastic thing when you think that a small business can affect 20 to 30 people's lives in a positive.” 
Graham Roberts addresses the crowd

Una Fitzgibbon, Director of Marketing Services for Bord Bia added to the good news but was aware that it is still a difficult time for any producer.
“The artisan food group grew from 50 firms in 1995 to 400 firms today. The response we get varies, some have had a tough year, others are doing okay. The biggest challenge that artisan producers currently face is in cash flow but there is a local market and by in large they are strong and doing well."  Una added that our food industry has become a strong sector in Ireland thanks to a growing support. “There is a new informal network emerging in the industry itself where people are interested in investing into small companies.”
Suzanne Campbell, journalist and food blogger was quick to add her insider experience to the matter:
“You have entrepreneurs who have a relatively big company who are then interested in smaller companies in a variety of ways, either through working co-operatively or through formal networking. It has become an industry that has become self resilient over the years."
“There has been a 7 per cent rise since 2008 in enquiring about new food businesses. In recessionary times it’s quite remarkable. It is a growing market for artisan and niche areas, whether it’s a stall in Georges Street Arcade or selling a commodity to another manufacturing centre.”
Farming is also an area that has been growing; we supply the UK with 3 out of 5 of their mushrooms while Ireland produces over 15% of the world’s infant formula. Pat Smith, General Secretary of the Irish Farmer’s Association pointed out why he thinks Ireland is still a fighting force when it comes to food.
“The one thing I learned from the farming community, we are just short of 90,000 farmers and a lot of these people are entrepreneurial and innovative. There are many companies like the Kerry Group who are well managed business and have seen constant growth. We have very strong things to sell from the quality of our product, the animal welfare standard and the environment standard.”
 So there we have it, a cheerful start to what we hope will be an ongoing debate – but is this good news justified? Is there a market big enough to support the rise in artisan producers? Do you have any opinions? Leave a comment and continue the discussion – or drop back soon for more updates on some of the issues raised in the first of the For Food's Sake discussions.

(And don't forget to put May 26th in your diary for the next one. Details TBC in terms of theme and panellists, but same time, same place. See you there!)

Monday, 4 April 2011

The start of something special

For Food’s Sake held its first event on the 31 of March in The Sugar Club attracting over 100 food enthusiasts and rewarding them with free tasters along with some food for thought. The evening kicked off with tasters from some great Irish artisan producers. The producers on show were Janet Drew of Janet’s Country Fayre with her wide range of chutneys and relish sauces, Graham Roberts of Connemara Smokehouse with his deliciously delicate smoked tuna, and Mary and Gerry Kelly of Moonshine Organic  Dairy with their range of cheeses and yoghurts.    

Full house at The Sugar Club

After everyone treated their taste buds with some fine food and a drink from the bar the eagerly awaited talk began. Food journalist Aoife Carrigy took the host seat as she raised some relevant issues with the panellists of the evening who were: Suzanne Campbell, journalist, blogger and co-author of Basket Case: What's Happening to Ireland's Food. Pat Smith the General Secretary of the Irish Farmers' Association. Una Fitzgibbon, the Director of Marketing Services for Bord Bia and Graham Roberts as he swapped his apron for a microphone and joined the other panellists on stage.

Aoife Carrigy (center) and the panelists from left to right: Una
Fitgibbon, Pat Smith, Suzanna Campbell and Graham Roberts

The title of the evening's discussion was 'The Great Green Hope: where lies the future of Irish food production. Despite the constant doom and gloom lingering over our country the Irish food industry is experiencing growth in exports and farming sectors. Also there is great news for foodies with farmers’ markets, artisan producers and micro beer breweries all on the rise.

The panellists then tackled the complex issues regarding the buying power that certain supermarkets can have over their suppliers. Advice was also given to the audience how to support Irish producers and farmers by buying the right produce in supermarkets.

More controversial issues were also touched on, including the question of potential usage of GMOs in Irish agriculture, which sparked a healthy debate between the audience and the panellists.

There was a lot covered over the two hour discussion: keep an eye on the blog for upcoming postings with more detail on specific areas of discussions. If you didn’t have an opportunity to speak this will be your chance to let your opinion be heard and to continue the debate, so feel free to throw in your tuppence worth and leave a comment or three.

After the talks subsided the enlightened audience were treated with another round of food tasters. Some delicious bread from Rossa Crowe of Le Levain bakery was topped with a delicious cream cheese from Moonshine Organic Dairy and smoked salmon from the Connemara Smokehouse finished with some of Janet’s Country Fayre cranberry relish.

Check back here over the coming weeks for profiles of the producer's showcased at the first For Food's Sake