I’m sure many of the journos who found their way to Richard Corrigan’s press conference last Friday imagined the big man’s impending rant to be just a publicity stunt to publicise his restaurant and his new TV programme. Maybe that’s why the event wasn’t as well attended as I thought it might be, with several notables from the food journalism scene absent from the event. In the end it was left to Orla Broderick, chair elect of the Irish Food Writer’s Guild, Aoife Carrigy of Food & Wine, Tom Doorley and myself to cary the flag and ask the pertinent questions. The rest of the press corps present were ‘Newsos’ and ‘Snappers’.
Personally, I eschew the begrudgers’ view. I’ve known Richard for a long time and that’s not how he operates. What he does is home in on something he feels mega-strongly about (remember ‘Chickengate’?). Then he wades in, metaphorically speaking, with fists and gob flying, food’s answer to Mohammed Ali aka “The Louisville Lip”. Richard Corrigan aka “The Meath Mouth” always strikes me as coming across more like St.George, charging into battle, terminating dragons with extreme prejudice, than St.Patrick, calmly telling the snakes to “feck off ”.
So it proved. Heart on his sleeve, combative as ever, Richard opened up by calling for the abolition of Bord Bia or at the very least a radical rethink of how the body promotes Irish food in Ireland. The current situation, he said, is highly unsatisfactory in that Bord Bia is prevented under EU law from promoting exclusively Irish produce in the domestic market through the Quality Assurance Scheme. This means that the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme can apply to produce from any EU country and is therefore deeply flawed. Therefore buying Bord Bia quality approved products does NOT ensure that the products are Irish; that the products are GMO-free; or that the interests of Irish farmers and consumers are a priority with the Bord.He went on to say “I believe that the promotion of Irish food abroad and the promotion of Irish food at home should be separated. I would like to call for at least a radical overhaul of Bord Bia’s role in order to preserve and create Irish jobs, to empower Irish consumers, to support Irish farmers and to see taxpayers’ money spent constructively”, said Richard Corrigan. “Ireland has a unique capacity to produce the safest and highest quality food in Europe instead we are sailing in the opposite direction.
As a manifesto it was a hazardous roll-up of three separate issues and Richard’s pebbledash approach weakened his argument in the debate with Aiden Cotter, top dog at Bord Bia, later that afternoon at which he came over as badly-prepared, under-briefed or whatever. There were a good few non sequiturs in his speech at the press conference too. Richard asked why weren’t people like the Ballymaloe Allens and others who had the welfare of Irish food at heart involved in Bord Bia’s schemes. The truth is they often were, certainly in the setting up of initiatives like the ill-fated and ludicrously unworkable Feile Bia scheme for restaurants and producers. One of my criticisms of the Bord during my time as Editor of Food & Wine Magazine was that their Quango sub-committees always involved ‘the usual suspects’ and maybe some fresh, original thought wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I agree with Richard’s suggestion that Bord Bia are maybe not the best equipped organisation to uphold quality,ethical food production funded as they are by the major agri-businesses for whom the bottom line is paramount. Given Bord Bia’s track record with the ineffectual Feile Bia scheme (which failed largely because it wasn’t properly policed) and the woeful ‘Just Ask’ campaign that replaced it (no sanctions if the restaurant simply lies!) it’s right to question whether the Bord are the right people to do the job. “Abolition?” I don’t think so. What they do rather well is help market Irish food abroad, their primary role.
Clearly, we can no longer slap an Irish badge on the package and hope that does the trick. For a start the EU seems to have made it clear that QA schemes (like the Ritz hotel?) are open to all. But was it ever really desirable? Remember the ‘Gi’ sticker? There was some awful crap carrying that label in its heyday. No, what the consumer needs to know is that the food is ethically produced, traceable, free as possible from pesticides and the ilk, and entirely free from taint by GM. The ‘Irish’ tag is nice to have and it’s great to know we’re supporting our own but it’s surely a ‘gizmo’ on top of the primary requirements. After provision of the above info the consumer can make up his or her own mind whether they want to go the tasty/healthy route or the cheap route but at least let’s empower them to be able to make that choice.
Lastly, over all this, like a pall of black smoke, hangs the GM question. The person who establishes the truth as to why our government is going it alone in facilitate the importing, growing and using of GM crops when the likes of France, Germany, Austria etc are moving in the opposite direction should be given the Presidency of Ireland for life. Anyone doubt there’s a link with The Forces of Darkness? One day it will emerge for sure but by then it will probably be too late.
By far the most impressive person at the press conference was Michael O’Callaghan, co-ordinator of GM-Free Ireland Network (website: www.gmfreeireland.org ) whose regular press releases make essential reading for anyone interested in the topic. Here’s what he told me: “I’ve been advised by experts from overseas that Ireland has the purest topsoil in the EU by far. And, along with New Zealand, we are the country least likely to be affected by climate change. In marketing terms, we own a gold mine. And the likelihood is, we’ll give it away.”