Wednesday, April 8, 2015

I talk to BBC about Ireland and the end of milk quota

The end of milk quota has come and gone. Irish farmers are finally able to sell every litre of milk they produce instead of hiding it in barrels or stuffing it into calves which was what was going on aplenty until Tuesday night last week. 

And it's not just Ireland that's celebrating. The entire dairy farming community of the EU has now entered an unfettered period of milking cows without restrictions. Farms from Slovenia to Sligo are scaling up and anticipating increasing markets for milk. But as we know, success isn't an upwards-only journey. 

In 2009, during the early stages of global markets opening up to Irish milk, prices fell heavily. Many Irish farmers were burned, forced to sell milk below the cost of production. In the UK there are only 10,000 dairy farms left against the 18000 here with a fraction of the population. The dairy sector there has been decimated, with family farms loading their herds into lorries for the factory as cull cows who they've bred on the same land for generations. 

The next few years are going to be interesting to say the least and price volatility is certainly going to be central to this quota-free era.  

Here's an appraisal of this huge shift in farming which I contributed to for BBC news.  

[I do love the BBC form of "Ms. Campbell". At least it's not Mrs. Philip Boucher-Hayes which I get all the time..]

BBC news talk Europe, Ireland and the end of milk quota

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Ireland's dairy export boom, is it without consequence?

Enda Kenny feeding a baby milk formula at Glanbia launch
If a picture tells a thousand words what does this one say? It's enraged people. Mostly women, and mostly those women interested in how feeding formula milk is considered "normal" while breastfeeding is seen as "unnormal".

Today was the first day in 31 years that Irish and European farmers were able to produce milk without limit. As part of a series of features by Irish writers on the social and economic impacts of the end of milk quota, I wrote the following piece about baby formula for the Irish Independent.

Baby formula is a huge part of our dairy export boom but is it a product without consequence? Some people think not...

Earlier this week on a farm in Carlow I watched milk splashing into jars as 80 doe-eyed Holstein Freisan ladies took their turn in the milking parlour. The farm, in beautiful well-drained Carlow land had been farmed by its 69 year old farmer and his father before him. This was the perfect place to talk about Irish milk and a brighter, quota-free era.

Quota was a kind of madness” said the farmer as we shared bread, butter and marmalade in his kitchen after morning milking finished. His college-going daughter, wearing her local GAA team shirt, placed a hot pot of tea and a 2 litre plastic carton of milk on the table.

I’ve sat in many such kitchens of dairy farms in Ireland. Despite the oft-heard view of the dairy farmer swimming in money, few of these farmers want to be rich. All want to educate their children, and work hard at a relentless 365 day a year job. As I poured milk into my tea I wondered if I should ask this man if he felt what he did for a living was putting families in other parts of the world at risk.
Increasingly questions are being asked about the nature of our dairy miracle and its big dependence on milk powder. Is this hugely successful industry which has helped bring Ireland out of recession selling a product to those who have the least money to spend on it - baby formula.
This is relevant both to developing countries and in Ireland where the ESRI named us in a report produced in January as having the lowest breast feeding rate in the world (yes you read that correctly).
Ireland makes 10% of the infant formula fed to babies around the globe. Our food and farming industry presents this as a green, healthy foodstuff and in many ways it is. Ireland is the only country where all our dairy farms are monitored for green credentials and where waste, energy, animal feed and every last input is measured and accounted for.

Yet both the World Health Organisation and HSE policy is for mothers to breastfeed rather than use formula milk in the early months, or in the case of the WHO up to two years of age.
“I was enraged when I saw this picture” says Krisia Lynch from AIMS – the Association for Improvement in Maternity Services talking about the Enda Kenny, Phil Hogan and Jim Bergin from Glanbia feeding three babies infant formula at the launch of Glanbia’s new infant formula plant in Belview earlier this month. “It was outrageous. On one hand you have the department of health saying breast feeding babies is policy then here’s the department of agriculture encouraging and selling this baby formula message. We can guess which of the two is the stronger lobby group.”

Glanbia’s infant formula is fed by parents in West Africa, the Middle East, Asia and central America. Their new factory is the largest single infrastructure investment in Ireland by an Irish company since the construction of Ardnacrusha in 1929. When I contacted the Taoiseach’s office on the above photo their comment was that the plant is expected to contribute an estimated €400m a year to the Irish economy and provide around 1,600 jobs as a result of the extra dairy activity. 

This baby formula boom is hugely valuable in the multiplier effect of income spread in rural areas. To suggest to these workers that what they are making is wrong is incorrect. But are we asking all the questions around to whom and how our infant formula is being sold.

“Our tiny little country manages to feed 10% of  the children of the world with artificial milk” says Krisia Lynch. “While on the other hand professionally here the message on breast milk is being re-written. It’s not now “breast is best” but “normal”. So your baby has a normal response to immuniolgical diseases, gestational diabetes, chrones disease etc... with the underlying message is that if baby is not fed human milk it will have a sub optimal response.”

In the 1970s infant formula companies began to see their first backlash as they began selling product in developing countries. To make up a baby’s bottle you must have a clean bottle, and a clean water supply. Many companies came in for abuse and scrutiny on how health workers and doctors were incentivised to sell baby powder to mothers where breastfeeding was clearly the safest option.

Children died and legislation was changed. In 1981 the UN World Health Assembly ruled that baby formula companies are not allowed influence health professionals on advising mothers.

Unfortunately this doesn't always work. A recent report by Save the Children accused Nestlé in Pakistan, of handing out branded items to health workers and free samples of formula and bottles to maternity facilities.
Ireland gives around 600 million euros to the developing world annually. We aid rural farmers and increasingly women to form micro-businesses that will earn them surplus cash to spend on health or sending their children to school. Some buy baby formula with his cash, thinking it is a better choice for their infant.  Is this a double standard? Is Ireland both playing poacher and gamekeeper?

“The debate on breastfeeding versus infant formula will continue but there is always needs to be choice” says Cormac Healy of the Irish Dairy Industries Association. “We also have to remember that in the scale of things we produce less than 1% of the world’s milk so single handedly we’re not going to change the consumption patterns of any marketplace.”

20% of the milk produced on Ireland’s 18000 dairy farms goes into baby formula. Irish factories produce from milk to finished product in packaged tins but we also export base milk powder for blending in other countries. We are not in control of how this product is sold to third parties or mothers.

“Were not a one trick pony here, infant formula is an important sector but it’s not all we do” says Cormac Healy. “It’s also produced under very strict regimes and has a very valid place in the nutrition area. In terms of the breastfeeding debate, there is the factor of choice and a lot of the time this is about information and support to mothers.”

Closer to home global food giant Danone has plants manufacturing infant formula in Macroom and Wexford, with Macroom producing over 125,000 tonnes of infant formula annually. Danone sponsors the Irish “First 1000 days” baby and toddler nutrition campaign. SMA owned by Pfizer, sponsors Ireland’s Pregnancy and 
Baby Fair in the RDS Dublin and Cork City Hall this April.

In Irish maternity wards, understaffing and the nice lady with trolley of made-up baby formula bottles are also pretty good at undermining the breast is best (or breast is normal) message.
Hospitals pay for the formula and new mums get it for free once they’re admitted to the maternity ward. Like most new mothers I planned on breastfeeding my first baby. Generally it went well but within two months I was back working and baby was wholly bottle-fed from then on.

With my second child I ended up back in hospital having surgery for a C-section complication. I pumped breast milk every four hours even straight after surgery like a demented person but eventually folded and bottle fed. And the brand I chose to continue feeding to my baby once I was discharged was the brand supplied in the hospital, in this case Aptamil. Most mothers do the same thing – if they baby feeds well on what the hospital supplied why fix something if it isn’t broken? 

Women who’ve just given birth, especially with their first baby are exhausted, and if the baby doesn’t latch on and feed they will often take the option of the handily available and free formula milk. Maternity staff are over-stretched and there are not enough bodies on the wards to literally sit with women, help them and motivate them to start or to stay breastfeeding. 

Some women desperately need infant formula, I needed it myself. But the WHO’s position and on wards in Ireland the reality is that most women don’t.

I put the question to twitter -  How do we feel about #babyformula in Irish hospitals? As a mother or parent was it manna from heaven or expensive road to ruin? #nutrition

  elizabeth macdonnell @yummymummyby4  @campbellsuz it's pushed as the easy option when in fact the opposite is true, the pressure to 'give a bottle/top up' begins in hospital

ShinyPrettyWant @fingalfoodie @campbellsuz if they didn't give it to me my child would have suffered. I can't produce sufficient breast milk due to a hormonal condition.
I found spending 15 euro on a box of formula really expensive and I’m living in a rich country. Imagine how expensive this is in real income terms in Africa or even China? But hang on – if we don’t sell this stuff to them somebody else will. Black market baby formula contaminated with melamine not only killed babies in China but has been found in milk powder sold as baby formula in East Africa. Surely Irish baby formula is the safest option. But is breast milk not the safest option?

Should we be finding other routes for high-quality Irish milk rather than baby-formula? It’s lucrative and valuable to the rural economy but it’s also controversial. The quality of this product is a world beater but Ireland could find itself the future focus of international criticism from NGO’s who work in the fields of infant and mother care.

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