Thursday, March 5, 2015

Are you being ripped off at the Supermarket?

You walk out the door of the shop and think "Did that really cost that much?" 
My own recent experiences of being overcharged in both mainstream supermarkets (a Tesco) and upscale food retailer (Donnybrook Fair) made me examine how many times we pay more for food than we think.

I shop in many different places. I never do a trolley shop in the multiples but I cruise around them now and again to check what's going on. I also shop for small items frequently in a "I need sugar for the children's flapjacks right this minute" kind of way as I'm passing a Dunnes, Tesco or Aldi. I also get lots of store cupboard foods in Aldi - chopped tomatoes, chick peas, kidney beans and their own brand yoghurt is fantastic - I know the farmer who makes it.   

The reality is that no matter how much food writers dislike them, supermarkets are the linchpin of our food landscape. In a word, Irish food is a dichotomoy. On one hand we want quality, provenance and we champion Irish artisan produce. But the reality of how we procure food is a cheap food retail war where the German discounters have the fastest growing grocery share in the country. 

Food inflation is at its lowest for many years. While we may think this value phase of endless offers and deals suits consumers, supermarkets still frequently charge above the listed price for goods, often without customers knowing.  Are the penalties for overcharging big enough and why do some supermarkets seem to be repeat offenders?

Recently I went out onto the streets of Dublin to test consumers views on food value, to find out what we do when we find a supermarket has ripped us off. I reported the results on RTE Radio's Drivetime programme. 

The agency in charge of policing overpricing is the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission. Recently they published their list of enforcement actions taken against traders who charged more for goods than the price displayed. These included a couple of Centras, Tescos, Supervalues, Boots, and Spars in different locations around the country.

The agency's information is gathered from consumers who complain directly to them. But they also carry out what they call "pricing compliance blitzs". This is where mystery shoppers investigate whether supermarkets are correctly displaying prices and then charging the price demonstrated. If the shop is found to be in breach of one of these regulations they are given a compliance notice or a fine of 300 euro to say they have been in breach of the legislation.

All cases are followed up and if not compliant the Commission have the option to go to court. So it's a stepped enforcement strategy. The interesting thing is that the discounters in Ireland - German chains Aldi and Lidl don't appear in the list. 

Simple German efficiency? It's hard to imagine that overcharging is a means by which multiples gain revenue, but if not, why haven't they sorted it out?

I interviewed Isolde Goggin from the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission about why it might be happening - whether overcharging is an error or a way of doing business.

The non-statutory organisation - the  Consumers Association of Ireland - think that the penalties for overcharging are simply not big enough, despite there being scope in consumer legislation for bigger fines. So what might work to deter this practice?

It's a debate worth having and as long as supermarkets take billions out of the economy, why should they add more revenue at the expense of unknowing consumers. 

The item is available to listen to at the link below. Happy Shopping!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Could we be reaching Peak Craft Beer?

In a food and drink area experiencing extreme heat, I recently investigated whether we're reaching the peak of a trend, or are in fact nowhere near the top. 

Long championed among Ireland's craft beer makers is the 10% of the US beer market that small craft labels have captured. Personally I love craft beer. But many Irish drinkers express a "done with that" attitude to the trend. So how is it really progressing and can it be ever upwards?

Recently I went along to a beer tasting seminar hosted by Liquid Curiosity in Dublin to meet brewers, taste beers and gauge the energy of new entrants to craft beer.

So what is a beer seminar?

Firstly there were about 25 people there – from the hospitality industry, brewers already in business, people wanting to set up a craft beer company and amateur enthusiasts. Tutor Jacqueline Steadman from Australia gave a basic introduction to different types of beers – pale ales, pilsners, stouts and what they are made from - hops, malt barley etc.

We sampled Irish beers and ciders in the main like Galway Hooker and Cockagee Cider from Slane but also more unusual products like cherry beers and a French Geuze formed with lots of lactic acid which tasted a bit like old socks. This was so deliciously on the verge of both disgusting and incredibly good that the only reason I pushed it to one side was it's incredibly high alcohol level at 8% APV.

The participants tasted the beers and discussed their characteristics. On each tasting sheet provided, beers were marked on colour, taste, the head, alcohol level, integration etc. Everyone really enjoyed tasting, commenting and getting to know new beers. There was lots of craic, plus a delicious lunch by Mourne Seafood where the seminar was held.

And there's not just energy and enthusiasm in the sector. The hard figures show huge growth.
From a handful of companies brewing before 2010 there are now over 80 Irish craft beer brands. Here's the question – how many more breweries can Ireland support? Craft beer here occupies between 1 and 2 percent of the beer market. In the United States their 10 percent hold has the big guns directly blaming craft beer for declining market share.

Budweiser volumes have fallen in the U.S. from nearly 50-million-barrel peak sales in 1988 to 16 million barrels last year. Light beers and craft beers have been the biggest factor in this decline, with younger people in the US staying away from what seem like old fashioned brands A recent study published by WSJ found that 44% of drinkers aged between 21 and 27 have never tried Budweiser. Sorry Clydesdales. You may be cute but you're also ageing.

So on paper there is still huge space for growth in Ireland – in other words to take Budweiser, Heineken and Guinness drinkers away from those brands onto craft beer brands. However it’s not as simple as that. Many Guinness drinkers simply like Guinness. Some craft beer drinkers are occasional beer drinkers who may not switch wholesale to one brand but try many and not be loyal to any.
Another remaining problem is that many bars particularly outside cities or foodie areas still do not stock craft beers. In some of the best hotels in Ireland I've asked for a craft beer and been looked at askance.

We also know that most of the Irish companies are very small and perhaps much of the appeal of their product is in their own local area or county. How many are going to be listed with the big supermarkets for example? Denise Murphy who manages the alcohol sector for Bord Bia points out that they are now directing craft beer companies more towards export. At so small a portion of the beer market here companies are going to have to look abroad to grow their output. It's not essential for survival but essential for growth.

Some drinkers are frankly sick to death of craft beer. And it's true that some products have been talked up. At the tasting seminar tutor Jacqueline Steadman who is an Australian wine maker opened a beer and pointed out a lot of what was wrong with it. There was plenty. We must remember that just because a beer says craft in front of it does not mean it’s excellent in every way. The term Craft Beer is also under fire in some territories where massive breweries make "craft" products and it’s been put forward by some publications that the term such be ditched.

Before the last budget in Ireland if you produced under 20,000 hectolitres annually beer companies got a tax rebate but that was then extended to 30,000 hectolitres. This was directly to benefit small craft beer companies very often situated in rural areas to grow, which is a very good thing. However it doesn’t stop companies calling themselves craft beer producers who produce far above this level.

There has been controversy in particularly the US where craft beer producers are often massive companies the size of Diageo. And even some craft producers say it’s better not to have a classification at all.

Having observed craft beer grow from so little in Ireland it's been an exciting and interesting journey to report on. I've interviewed and featured beer producers from Galway, Dublin, Donegal, Cork, Leitrim and Monaghan. I would characterise the sector at this point as being in its second phase. The stage where a community regroups, reflects upon itself and competition usually gets tougher as the marketplace gets more crowded.

Bright futures aren't a given for all these companies and it's worth noting that breathlessly championing every single product is a mistake. Ultimately craft beer offers the consumer more choice as the big international brands have had a stranglehold on the beer market for decades. That's a good thing, but perhaps is also viewing craft beer as no longer the food and drink baby needing kisses and love but a juvenile with a bright future, and challenges yet to take on. 

@campbellsuz on twitter

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Natural", "Artisan"? - nonsense? Get involved in the discussion on use of food marketing terms in Ireland

This is something that constantly amazes me; I pick up a pack of Danish sausages in the supermarket (often distributed by big Irish brands) who neither state the country of origin or make ridiculous claims of it being a cutsey farm product rather than mass-produced factory food using the lowest acceptable standards, sold at the lowest possible prices. 

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland have announced a public consultation on the use of food marketing terms in Ireland. Words like "natural" "traditional" and "farmhouse" are used liberally on food labels but carry no meaning or no protection in the case where food is actually produced by hand in small quantities. Consumers are confused and many believe that like "organic" these terms carry a defined meaning.
As this has been an issue for many years Food and Drink Industry Ireland, (IBEC), the Artisan Forum and Consumers Association of Ireland have now developed the draft code of practice aimed at protecting the integrity of certain marketing terms on food and the interests of consumer and the small food industry.
This Code of Practice outlines the general legal requirements but in addition will provide an agreed set of rules for the food industry concerning the use of the following marketing terms to describe foods placed on the Irish market:

• Artisan/Artisanal
• Farmhouse
• Traditional
• Natural
I know that many people in both the food and consumer sector are concerned with this so now is the chance to have your say.
The consultation will run for 8 weeks and the closing date for responses is 14 May 2014. All feedback and comments will be considered in advance of the FSAI publishing a final industry Code of Practice later in the year. To let your opinion be known please check out the following link:

Pls share and let people know in the small food sector #Irishfood

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lovely Lamb

In my food column this month for The Gloss magazine I write about Spring lamb and a time for learning.

New born lambs are appearing in the fields around our house. This happens just as my friends and neighbours bear the weary eyes of long nights in sheds with bawling ewes, or bottle feeding the unwanted or third in a triplet set in the kitchen.

The valley I live in is mountainy marginal land and has very few cattle anymore. Most of the sheep farms have consolidated into a remaining ten to twenty farmers with their own home farm and sheds, who rent extra land from families that have left farming. Close to us the Hogans, McKees and Keegan's of @waterfallfarm shop are in the thick of the lambing season. In a fickle marketplace it's a business with price rises and crashes like everything else. Sheep are also notoriously tricky to rear and I've witnessed myself the old adage - the first indication of illness in a sheep is mortality. Yet the farmers still stay up all night, both men and women, to lamb ewes, to get the newborn started on feeding and nurse the ones not thriving.

Lambing season here is something both myself and my children delight in. The squeals of delight in response to newly born lambs bucking and skipping on their first day out on grass say it all. It's a pity that as a foodstuff in Ireland we are eating less lamb and it's now purchased by mainly older consumers. I love lamb. I buy half a lamb from the farm across the lane every year and for me it tastes like home.


This Edible Life  March 2014

One of my Spring pleasures - holding a new born lamb is unfortunately contraindicated to eating one. Not only are they too cute with their little velvet muzzles, early lamb can have a jelly-like texture and is much better killed at about five months old. While the garden eases into Spring I´m still cooking plenty of dark cabbage and have successfully converted all cabbage sceptics with my fabulous Gnocci with Savoy cabbage and Wicklow Blue or fried off with chorizo and garlic for an easy soup with vegetable stock and cream.

Around Dublin I´ve fallen in love with The Green Bench cafe on Montague Street (as if those pesky Dublin 8-ers aren´t served with enough great spots for a quick lunch). The serve lovingly-made take out for at your desk or if you´re like me - on the run from one venue to the next.  Super moreish is their wrap of citrus marinated feta with avocado, olive tapenade and hummus.

Not far away on Stephen´s Street, P. macs is a more comfy version of the cocktail zinc bars populating the South William street area. There´s lampshades straight from your grandmothers, patchwork armchairs and if you don´t feel like wearing towering heels it’s cosy for a quiet drink in the snug and some decent pizza. Another dress-down hide out for early evening is open downstairs on Dawson street. FAATBAAT serves a multitrip of cuisines – everything from Japanese ramen dishes to Malaysian “Drunken Prawns”. Their Go Go Bar is what this place is all about though with great tunes and decent cocktails.
Always a hot social ticket, the best food producers in the country compete on the 12th March for a gong from my own parish – the Irish Food Writers Guild. The awards will be hosted by Derry and Sally-Ann Clarke in the wonderful L´Ecrivain. We have some stunning food and drink entries, all Irish artisan-produced but I am sworn to secrecy. Follow the winners and recommendations from the day at twitter @foodguild.

No better time than Spring to sharpen cookery skills. To mark her new book The Extra Virgin Cookbook, Susan Jane White is hosting an evening of cooking and tasting at Fallon and Byrne on the 12th. Countrywide, it´s great to see many people I admire in food offering their expertise. JP McMahon, Michelin-starred chef and owner of Aniar in Galway has day workshops this month in “Nose to Tail Eating” and “The Whole Hen”. Down in Thomastown the inspiring Mag Kirwan is holding classes in smoking at her Goatsbridge Trout Farm.

Close to the beautiful beach at Termonfeckin in County Louth, the Tasty Tart Tara Walker has classes in cooking fresh fish landed at nearby Clogherhead and Foods of the Middle East, timely with the huge popularity of Ottolenghi. If you have a few bob ditch Ottolenghi and go to Beirut, one of my favorite cities for food - figs, hummus fatteh, baba ghanoui… Or closer to home check out Silvena Rowe´s cooking in at Quince in London´s Mayfair Hotel and her gorgeous book Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume: Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean

Always dreamed of being a food entrepreneur?

So you want to start a food business? Last year the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recorded an increase of 5% in the number of food businesses established in Ireland in the past five years. So despite recession there is plenty of optimism among food entrepreneurs. Maybe it's because of the huge success of the ag and food sector in Ireland, our active and growing food economy of both small producers and multinationals now exporting as far as Shanghai and Dubai.

Of course lots of us want to be a part of that, but do we have a clue what we're doing? I cover new food stories every week either as part of my radio or print work. Most of the people I meet are already established along the often painful food business journey. They range from dairy farms making ice cream to small cafes in rural towns.

But the failure rate in food businesses is notorius. And certainly people often enter the food world not fully aware of the basic facts of setting up and registering a food business and food premises, whether it be a new restaurant or your own kitchen. I went along to the FSAI's free seminar to advise new food entrepreneurs on what's ahead of them. And there's certainly plenty of interest.

With 46,000 food businesses already set up in Ireland, the FSAI received 1,278 business start-up queries received in the last 12 months. The group says the majority of these enquiries came from people looking to set up a food business from home.

The half-day seminar brought together an inquisitive audience to meet experts from the business of food. Talks covered everything from registering a new food business, food product development, food safety training requirements, setting up a food safety management system, labelling regulations, traceability, the food recall process, inspections and the information resources available from the FSAI.

It was both terrifying and satisfying, but every single person there learned a great deal and came out with their head spinning. It was fascinating how people found the information daunting but nevertheless still planned to go ahead with their food business ambitions, despite some having lets say, only the very roughest of ideas.

I reported on RTE Drivetime later with Mary Wilson and talked - with the high attrition rate, is it nuts to want to set up a food business? Here's the link -!rii=9%3A20516840%3A83%3A30%2D01%2D2014%3A

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ah just throw it in the bin

Foodwaste! God how it bugs us all but yet we keep throwing out food.
We don´t mean to waste money. We don´t mean to ignore food in the fridge. We don´t mean to be wasteful, We don´t mean to overshop but we do.

To varying extents, all of us waste food. I am a complete scrooge but at some stage during the week I will still throw something into the bin that should not be there. Most of the time I think I´m great on the food waste issue but actually I´m not. I´m pretty medium rate. I make the "it goes to the dogs" excuse. We have two dogs which are very good at eating anything that falls on the floor, let alone scraps from plates. Unfortunately remembering to cut the Labrador´s food after half a bowl of scraps doesn´t always occur. So we´ve one fat dog and one anorexic terrier which is pretty much the way terriers are.

Some vegetables can go to my two rescue horses but as they are in work and as one is pretty fussy carrots are about the height of it. One thing I am very good at is shopping strategically and planning meals. I just make too much each time. Yes I freeze and make large batches to have later but often serve portions which are too large, particularly to my two children. Watching them say they are full when their plates are still laden with food, it´s tempting to make them suffer it out and eat the lot. But as we now know, this method employed by our parents is a dietary no no. (oh how I suffered at the table with gerbil cheeks full of spinach) so it´s back to the dog´s bowl it goes or into the bin.

Sometimes I get it really wrong - an untouched iceberg lettuce weeping in its wrapping at the back of the fridge and even today - some pork belly I bought which I was really looking forward to roasting tonight with Roosters and beets is somehow three days past the date. How did that happen? Why didn´t I put it in the freezer?

So we know it´s a problem but why do we keep doing it? Perhaps we don´t know Exactly how much it costs. Well now em, we do.

For the past six months by other half, journalist and co-author of the original  Basketcase Philip Boucher-Hayes has been filming a documentary for RTE on food waste in Ireland and examining strategies to curb it. When you tot up the figures it seems that in this country that of every three bags of groceries we bring into the house, one goes in the bin. Yep, throw it in, just like that. The other shocking figure is that according to the EPA - half a billion euros, yes, half a billion, could be saved if we got control of the problem.

As it´s such a large issue spanning everything from hospital food to high end restaurants one of the challenges in making the series was how to reach into our - the viewer´s own shopping and eating behaviour. So the series picked one town - Killorglin in County Kerry to focus on and take case studies of families in terms of what is coming into their house and what is going into the bin.

Here´s the promo for the documentary.

It´s interesting frankly to see your own behaviour reflected back at you. Everyone has issues with food waste and it goes on in every kitchen. In a country where one in ten people suffer from food poverty its an uncomfortable situation. Philip´s documentary - Waste Watchers is on RTE 1 television is on this 
Sunday at 6.30. 

Irish food´s Riverdance moment

After a Summer and Autumn of hard work and a lot of travel I´ve been so busy with my journalism that I´ve realised I need to post some new stuff here and let those outside Irish media to see what´s going on in Irish food and farming. Happily the big story of this year - our horsemeat scandal ended up being something postive for our food sector. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland who was first to spot the problem earned a lot of credit for lifting the lid on the murky world of "meat agents" and a European trade involving many countries and players and in some cases criminal activity in the food chain.

The truth is that aside from a very small number of rogue players, Irish beef is a fantastic food, extensively farmed, grass fed and fully traceable. In fact since the story broke Ireland has gained new markets for our beef exports and just this week we´ve seen Japan lift a ban on imports of Irish beef since the BSE scandal. Confidence is high in the food we are producing here. In many ways I´m busier than ever in a work sense because the message of our book from 2009 - that food is important, that the economic boom in Ireland ignored the farming and food sector, that the farming sector is one of this country´s selling points is now hugely recognised.

Ireland has more food festivals than ever. More food entrepreneurs than ever. But today I again visited a small food producer - a free range poultry grower whose livelihood is threatened by regulations which he feels are designed for big multinational food businesses and not the small scale individual. This is something I hear a lot on my travels around the country. But despite challenges to small or artisan producers, overall the local food culture here is growing apace. In 2009 when we penned the book there was no such pride in Irish food, and farming was a dirty word. Now there is truly a food to fork culture where many consumers, not just foodies are engaged with trying to buy local food and good quality food. Yes there are still difficulties in the sector and in these times us consumers also have less money to spend. But with less money there is also awareness of Irish food´s huge value to the local economy.

Recently the Dublin Web Summit took place in Ballsbridge Dublin - it´s a giant tech festival if you like, bringing together 10,000 tech start ups, venture capitalists, international brands and 400 international media. For the first time at the web summit not only Irish tech but Irish food was put centre stage. Good Food Ireland - an organisation of food producers and restaurants simply took over the catering. Instead of the usual mass-produced conference food, the delegates dined on venison sausage, Birgitta Curtin´s smoked salmon, relishes and Irish cheeses in a menu designed by Ballymaloe cookery school´s Rory O´Connell.

Watching the delegates taste the food in the beautiful tented setting in Herbert Park Dublin (photographed above) made me realise this really was a special event, a special moment. Finally Irish food was getting the attention it deserved. It was Irish food´s Riverdance moment - an instance where something essential to us and taken for granted is pulled into the limelight and lauded. There is no going back.

Here´s my report from the day on RTE radio´s Drivetime programme