Feargal Quinn: Do you know what is in your barbecue burger?
Retailers and food producers are still under no obligation to inform consumers as to where the food we eat actually comes from
People like to know where their food comes from. During the foot-and-mouth scare in 2001, sales of fresh meats increased in Superquinn, bucking the trend. At the time we concluded that people were coming to our stores because we had introduced a system of meat traceability before our competitors. In fact we had introduced a paper-based traceability programme as far back as 1991.
When we introduced traceability it cost us over £11 million a year to administer. This allowed us to display meat while showing the number of the farmer who supplied it, when it was killed and the factory number.
We wanted to place as much information as we could in the hands of the consumer.
Now traceability of fresh meat is the norm, as is a low level of provenance information on dairy. However, the traceability of most other items that we find on supermarket shelves is nonexistent.
Think back to the horse meat scandal back in 2013 – it showed how convoluted the supply chain of our food ingredients can be – or the pork dioxin crisis of 2008.
When you barbecue frozen burgers do you really know what they contain and where the ingredients have been sourced? The answer is no.
When supermarkets produce their own-brand products on the pack they state “specially produced for” followed by the name and address of the supermarket office. This tells the consumer nothing. Doesn’t the consumer at least deserve to know where an item was produced?
Similarly, the origin of ingredients of a food item still remain a mystery. A jar of jam or a box of cereal may be produced in Ireland but in this era of ethical trading, “food miles” and climate change the consumer is entitled to know where the primary ingredients have come from.
The labelling of food items almost always contains details relating to the production batch and so on -– the date of production can be discerned by the producer but not by the consumer. Again this is an important piece of information that I think the consumer should be entitled to know.
“Use by” dates
There is so much scope for Ireland to lead the way on openness when it comes to food. Ireland showed the world that a workplace smoking ban could be effective. We are also leading the way on plain packaging of tobacco, as well on minimum pricing for alcohol. With a strong indigenous food sector and a glowing reputation as a “food island” there is no reason Ireland cannot lead the way on food provenance.
The Irish food industry needs to empower the consumer by providing them with basic, but yet so fundamental, information about the food we eat. If it can begin by empowering the Irish consumer, the Irish food industry can have a leading edge in other markets through increased transparency on aspects of food provenance.
While the Government’s Food Wise 2025 strategy sets out a strong plan for the sector, there is scope for Ireland to be a leader in food provenance. I will be looking to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, the Food Safety Authority, and indigenous food producers and Irish-based multinational food producers to spearhead an alliance for action on food provenance.
To fail to do so will be a lost opportunity to build on Ireland’s brand as a “food island”. Feargal Quinn founded Superquinn and is a former senator