Simon Coveney: ‘A McDonald’s burger isn’t as unhealthy as some people suggest’

Look who’s coming to lunch: the Minister for Food, Simon Coveney, talks obesity, horsemeat and conflicts of interest

Mon, Nov 18, 2013, 01:00

He spends his days talking about food – how to produce it, sell it and regulate it. But who knows what the Minister for Food really thinks about food? Perhaps Simon Coveney has a predilection for a Pot Noodle? Or maybe he will allow nothing less than the finest Hereford dry-aged steak to grace his table? Or – whisper it in case the cattle farmers hear – perhaps he’s a militant vegetarian in his spare time?

The Irish Times requests lunch with him to find out. But where? Choosing the steak emporium Shanahan’s on the Green will greatly please the beef industry, but the bill might make our accounts department reach for the smelling salts. The calorie-counting Dáil canteen is cheap and cheerful, but can lack pizzazz (unless Mattie McGrath parades by).

The suggestion from Coveney’s press adviser ticks all the right boxes. Hatch and Sons, in the basement of the Little Museum of Dublin on St Stephen’s Green, prides itself on supporting artisan producers. It was named after a dairy that once graced Leeson Street in the late 1800s, and it focuses on everything being Irish, from rapeseed oil to flour, eggs to salad leaves.

So far, so appropriate. The basement of the Georgian house is packed when Coveney arrives, and a few heads turn to look at him. The 41-year-old Cork man has become a familiar face, particularly since the horsemeat scandal catapulted his department to the front pages.

He has eaten food from Hatch and Sons before, but as takeaway at his desk. The Minister for Food doesn’t have a lot of time to eat. In fact, he has lost weight since he took on the brief, as he misses meals and often delivers his speech and leaves before everyone else tucks in to lunch or dinner. “I do eat more seafood now, since I became Minister,” he says. “I’ve got to know the fishing industry a lot better and if I’m having a two- or three-course meal I feel I have to start with fish. It amazes me that Irish people don’t eat more fish.”

A meal fit for a Minister
Today he opts for the restaurant’s speciality, the beef and Guinness stew. No vegetarian tendencies there, then. Conscious of warnings that goat’s cheese is getting scarce, The Irish Times goes for broke with the Fivemiletown goat’s cheese salad with pear and walnuts. Eagle-eyed readers will observe that he’s about to tuck into my lunch in the photograph, but this is at the request of the photographer, who thinks the salad is more photogenic.

The goat’s cheese is excellent, and the Minister for Food gives his blessing to the stew, clearing his plate. As Minister for Food, he must have eaten the finest of dishes since he took office in 2011. In the unlikely event that this earnest agricultural science graduate finds himself on death row, what would his final request be?

“My favourite meal is probably roast chicken with roast potatoes and carrots, nicely cooked,” he says. When he finds time to cook, it’s usually pasta and chicken dishes. “I cook a bit in Dublin and sometimes in Cork at the weekends, cooking for the kids. If I have a bit more time, you can’t beat a nice Irish fillet steak.”

Family life
He is married to Ruth Furney, and the couple have three daughters under four years of age: Beth, Jessica and Annalise.

They don’t spend much time in restaurants at the weekends, preferring to make the most of his short time at home, but when asked about his favourite places, he namechecks Cronin’s in Crosshaven and Hassett’s Bakery in Carrigaline.

He is conscious of our growing obesity problem and says it doesn’t help the sale of Irish food if visitors to this island find themselves surrounded by overweight people.

“A lot of Irish children are overfed. But the beauty of a country like Ireland is that there are only four million of us so we can change the way a nation views food if we plan it.”

So would he bring his children to McDonald’s? “Yes, but I’d obviously be conscious of what I’m buying them,” he says. Having visited Dawn Meats, which supplies burgers to McDonald’s, he says people would be surprised to see the quality control involved. “You would be very comfortable eating a McDonald’s burger if you saw how that meat is produced, how it is processed, the measurements around fat levels, meat quality and so on. A McDonald’s burger isn’t as unhealthy as some people suggest. But everything in moderation here. I don’t think you should be taking your kids to McDonald’s every day, but there’s nothing wrong with bringing them there for a treat.”

Some critics think he is too closely aligned to big food businesses, but he makes no apology for focusing on them. “They are the big employers. They are the big volume exporters and they are the ones that are spending a lot of money on innovation and research. But I would say that I spend as much time with the small guys too. It mightn’t get as much national profile though.”

At home in Cork, his near-neighbours are Carrigaline Cheese and O’Conaill Chocolates, “so I wouldn’t like people to think that my only interest in the food industry is with the big exporters. I don’t accept this idea that to be committed to food you need to solely focus on one sector, whether it’s organics, or artisan or whatever. My job is to support all those sectors.”

The value of our food and drink exports was less than €8 billion a year when he took office and is heading for €10 billion this year. “The demand for Irish food is growing and will continue to grow for the next 50 years,” he says.

What will the environmental impact be if production is ramped up as planned? He says sustainable expansion is at the top of his agenda. “By the end of this year, we will have 36,000 beef farms carbon foot-printed, so I can tell you, when I sell you a steak, not only where that steak came from but also the carbon footprint of the animal. And we’re about to do something similar with our 17,000 dairy farmers.”

Conflicts of interest
With such a wide brief, involving farmers, food processors and regulation, is there a danger of conflicts of interest? He says the reputation of our food industry is everything. “Yes, farmers for me are the most important part of the food chain as the primary producers, but they are not the only thing that’s important, not by a long shot. I see my department as driving a food sector. If you solely focused on farmers and ignored the fact that we export 90 per cent of what we produce, you would have nowhere to sell it.”

This massive reliance on export markets was put in jeopardy in January when the horsemeat crisis began, but Coveney believes the State has come out of it stronger. Demand for Irish beef has increased since then. “Ireland is to the forefront at a European level in terms of putting regulations in place to make sure that this is unlikely to happen again,” he says.

Measures include routine DNA testing of food products and tighter horse identification regulations. “We will impose standards in a rigorous way. We will take cases against people if they are not legally operating. There will always be incidents in the food industry that we need to deal with, but our systems are better now than they’ve ever been. I will come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who compromises our food safety.”

His youngest daughter, Annalise, was born in the midst of the horsemeat crisis, in February. He says not seeing his family often enough is one of the most difficult parts of the job. “That is the biggest challenge for me – trying to make sure I am a good father as well as a good politician.”

Maintaining a strong connection with his family is “very important. That’s why you don’t see me going to too many matches, going sailing or golfing any more,” he says. His children’s lack of interest in the finer details of the Common Agricultural Policy keeps him grounded. “If I’m ever in any danger of getting carried away with my own importance, that gets pulled down very quickly. And that’s the way I like it.

“I generally leave politics at the door when I go home. They really have no interest in hearing about Cap or CFP [Common Fisheries Policy] or opening up new markets in Qatar, ” he says.

In years to come, Coveney believes this will be looked back upon as “a golden decade” for Irish food. “I’ll probably only be part of it for the first few years but while I’m there, I want to make the biggest impact I can.”

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