Speeches

Address By Mr. Trevor Sargent T.D.Minister Of State At The At The Departments’ Of Health And Children & Agriculture, Fisheries And Food At The Food Safety Authority 10th Anniversary Conference

A chairde,
Is onóir mhór dom mar Aire Stáit a bhíonn ag plé le cúrsaí bia sa dá Roinn, an dara lá den chomhdháil seo a oscailt. Tá Údarás Sábháilteacha Bia na hÉireann ar an saol le deich mbliana agus is cúis cheiliúraidh í an ócáid seo.

Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a great honour for me as Minister of State dealing with food in our two Departments to be asked to open the second day of this conference. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland is working now successfully for 10 years and this occasion itself is cause for celebration.

Since the foundation of the FSAI in 1999 the authority has developed its role from one of ensuring the safety of food grown produced and marketed in Ireland to many roles dealing with food quality as well as health promotion. The authority in this context also has responsibilities for food labelling. My initial involvement with the FSAI was to promote country of origin labelling which we now have with beef.

It is something of a paradox that even though more country of origin labelling would help the customer to make choices to reduce the carbon footprint of their food purchases, we are not unfortunately getting sufficient support from other EU member states who profess an interest in tackling climate change but who are opposing the country of origin labelling.

Meanwhile German and UK Governments are working together with Irish co-operation on introducing carbon footprint labelling which may well assist us towards introducing country of origin labelling in the medium term. Carbon footprint labelling is by its nature more complex. However, given that the total energy consumption in producing food has to be evaluated.

Germany has also introduced voluntary labelling of food from animals that are fed on GMO feed. As Minister for Food I have taken note of this development and I am aware that Germany buys €316 million worth of food from Ireland per year. €16.6 million of Irish pigmeat is sold in Germany annually as is €16.3 million euro of Irish beef. There is a strong market in Germany as there is in the rest of the Eurozone and indeed in the UK for the clean green food products which we export. There is an even stronger market for export if we can certify products as GM free. Surveys show one of the main reasons for growth of organic food in Austria (now around 13% of their food sector) is certainty that organic is GM free.

The nature of food globalisation is thought by many to have ensured greater choice. However this impression of choice is often matched by a loss of diversity. If we remove wheat, corn and soya from our food supply there are not too many staple food products remaining.

Over recent decades products such as apples have been bred for long shelf life and long distance transportation. However nutritional qualities have often been lost along the way. As a result studies have shown that in the 1940s many apples had three times the levels of iron contained in apples for sale today.

Likewise in the case of milk we can see that cattle in the 1950s may have yielded up to 1/3 less milk per animal but, each litre contained more nutrients than a litre of milk today.

Last summer a British study made headlines in Ireland claiming that organic food had slightly more nutrients, trace elements, vitamins and flavanoids etc., but the difference between organic and non-organic they said was not significant. The debate continues on this matter and I look forward to reading the peer reviewed report from Newcastle University which has indicated very significant differences in nutrient content between organic and non-organic food, particularly if the non-organic food has been produced intensively. However there is more to food than nutrients.

Food has qualities beyond being a delivery system for vitamins and other elements. Health does indeed require safe and nutritious food but also I believe health requires pleasure to be derived from food, sociality in the eating of food and a sense of identity and diversity from the culture, which has given rise to the food we eat.

For example we can ask the question, which is healthier- To eat and run or to dine and savour? In the USA over 50% of meals are eaten outside the home. 20% of food is consumed while people are sitting in cars.

There was an interesting survey carried out in the USA and France about the association people have with a chocolate cake. In the USA the association was one of guilt while in France a chocolate cake suggested celebration. The reasons we have an obesity epidemic in the western world in my opinion is not so much a consequence of birthday cakes but a general trend of being over-fed while at the same time undernourished.

My contention therefore is that globalisation of food has not delivered real choice. What it has delivered however is a variety of mainly seed based foods and given our dependence on these foods, our diet is getting a considerable amount of omega-3. Two thirds of US diets I understand now come from corn, wheat, soya and rice in one form or another.

What the globalisation of food has failed to deliver is a balanced diet. One reason for this I believe is that leaf based foods such as lettuce, cabbage and many vegetables do not travel well and as a result the western diet has too little Omega 6. However plants are more than the sum of their nutrient parts. The advice of Michael Pollan in his book “In Defence of Food” is stated simply “Eat food, not too much, mainly plants.”

Given the recessionary times we live in, it is understandable why there would be a trend to spend less on food but unfortunately this trend in the US has resulted in more having to be spent on healthcare. In 1960 the average American spent 17.5 % of disposable income on food while spending 5.2 % of income on healthcare. By 2007 the average American was spending just 9.9 % of disposable income on food whereas 16 % of that income was spent on healthcare.

In conclusion it seems to me that food is as much about culture as it is about biology. Food is less of a thing and more of a relationship. It helps if you can shake the hands that feeds you, as one should be able to do at a farmers market or at a farm shop. It also helps to eat slowly as the brain takes 20 minutes to register that the stomach is feeling full.

The last 10 years have seen FSAI garnering huge respect for its work and its ability to communicate especially in difficult times such as when we had the pigmeat dioxin problem which is now behind us. The next 10 years will see us hopefully developing the FSAI roles of health promotion even further while maintaining high food quality standards.

There will also be a need to ensure all of us have a strategy in place, which delivers food security given climate change, the end of cheap oil and rising populations. From the Government’s point of view this requires more people to become involved in food growing and food production. Already I have introduced food growing and cooking to every primary school in the country. In due course every kitchen should have access to a kitchen garden or allotment or local farm produce and every garden should have a culinary connection to a kitchen. This perhaps is a debate for another day but in the meantime I want to finally wish the Food Safety Authority of Ireland every success with the remainder of the conference and congratulate all involved in the excellent work which has been done over the last 10 years. May your work and all involved with the FSAI go from strength to strength.

If ever there was a reason to break out the chocolate birthday cake, this is it.