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The Real Cost of Cheap Food?

As the horsemeat scandal rumbles on and layer upon layer of unsavoury truths continue to be revealed, it must at last be clear to the general public that the real cost of cheap food is a price far too high to pay – and that the problem goes way beyond the immediate fraudulent and criminal implications of this particular débacle.

It’s been a disaster waiting to happen for decades and the best that can be said about it is that at least it’s out in the open now, so perhaps urgent lessons will be learned. But I’m not holding my breath.

Darina Allen spoke for many of those who care about the quality of food – and the people who put their livelihoods on the line to produce and sell quality food – in a recent piece for The Examiner (reproduced below). I would certainly endorse her views, especially concerning the outcome for our responsible farmers and small producers, which Ross Golden Bannon also wrote about very forcefully in the March issue of Food & Wine Magazine. The worst case scenario is that a whole rake of new regulations brought in to control industrial food production will be unfairly applied to small businesses, adding to the disproportionate burdens they already have to bear and inevitably increasing the cost of their produce and putting many of them out of business.

Much as we may like the idea of shopping in small shops and farmers’ markets, the vast majority of us have to do our main shopping in supermarkets, but they are not all the same. And, even though we’re all feeling the pinch at the moment, perhaps it’s time to think about false economies – ie look beyond the bare figure on the checkout receipt and support the shops that try harder. It makes much more sense to shop around for quality rather than the ‘cheapest’ options.

I recently received an interesting email from Marks & Spencer – whose food pricing is unarguably at the higher end of the mass market spectrum – stating that “M&S has not needed to withdraw any products as part of the ongoing beef issue. We’ve tested our products and the results told us what we already knew – where it says so on the packaging, our products contain 100 per cent beef. With specific regard to ready meals we only use M&S Assured fresh beef from farms in the UK. All our fresh beef, chicken, pork and salmon are British or Irish. We always apply the same strict standards wherever we source products from. Good food starts with good ingredients – and the best ingredients come from the best farmers. We are extremely proud of the long-term relationships that we have with our farmers and our suppliers; some of whom have been supplying M&S for over 50 years.” Although we all know that there is a downside to supplying even the best of supermarkets, this is reassuring, if not surprising for consumers – and if one shop can get it right then so will others if shoppers vote with their feet and take their wallets to other shops, of whatever size.

A current Irish initiative that could give a boost to Irish food producers is SuperValu’s ‘Great Irish Event’, where they’re encouraging customers to eat only Irish food for a week – and they’ve devised an Eat Irish Only menu feeding a family of four for a week for less than €100, so the old ‘Irish is too expensive’ line won’t wash. No doubt this initiative includes many mass-produced foods, which should always be scrutinised carefully, but SuperValu also have a great track record when it comes to supporting smaller producers and local suppliers. Unlike other supermarkets, they’re not just a ‘branch’ but have an owner in the driving seat and his/her family name is over the door. Some of their stores have achieved national recognition – Fields of Skibbereen, Scallys of Clonakilty, Pettits of Wexford, Kiernans of Mount Merrion all come to mind – for this policy, which sees the ‘multiplier effect’ of keeping money in the community in action, and creates employment at many levels.

Darina Allen, writing in The Examiner on Saturday 2nd March 2013: “As the horsemeat scandal continues to gain momentum what amazes me is why we are surprised. How exactly do we explain the incredibly low price of many processed foods? For those of us who are farmers and food producers we know it cannot be done without resorting to deeply unsavoury practices.

Furthermore, what is going on behind the scenes has been well known in food circles for a long time. It is a global issue and unlikely to be the only area of scary adulteration that comes to light. All the more reason for the Government, the Department of Agriculture and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) to encourage and support artisan food producers in farmers markets, country markets, small shops, local butchers, abattoirs and fishmongers.

Over the past few weeks there has been much discussion among food producers who have ‘been put through the wringer’ — or ‘constantly hassled’ as one woman put it.

Beef farmers are justifiably very, very angry. Could this be the time for farmers to take back control and start the co-ops all over again?

This whole affair is shining a bright and for some, deeply uncomfortable light on areas of a bewilderingly complex food chain that is very rarely scrutinised. Investigations have revealed an international criminal conspiracy and a tangled web where it would appear that rules and laws are constantly broken.

Local food producers are known in their own area and then-neighbours invariably know exactly how the food is produced and, whether they operate to a high standard. Invariably they are passionate about quality and are acutely aware that their reputation and the success of their business depends on maintaining the highest standard.

We can be justifiably proud of the FSAI who flagged up the problem in the first place and our Minister of Agriculture Simon Coveney who has dealt with a difficult situation in a carefully measured manner.”

Georgina Campbell

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