Safe and healthy food


The Food Standards Agency hosted a round table discussion on the importance of safe and healthy food in the hospitality sector and the impact of the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink.

What impact do you think the designation of the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink will have?

Maria Jennings

It is very interesting and exciting to have the designation of the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink because we have so much to celebrate within our food industry. From a food safety point of view, we have the highest rate of compliance across the United Kingdom to achieve that we put a lot of time and effort into it with our partners in the district councils and also with our partners in the Department of Agriculture. We should celebrate the range and diversity of the lovely food we produce in Northern Ireland.

Donal Durkan

Its a very welcome initiative. It is an opportunity to focus on all that is good about the food and drink industry. From our perspective it brings together producers, processors, chefs and restaurateurs and is a tremendous opportunity in terms of developing that relationship further. It also is critical in terms of tourism, which is a major industry for Belfast city and links directly into our integrated tourism strategy that runs between 2015 and 2020.

Michele Shirlow

It will increase the profile of Northern Ireland in other regions and will reveal the massive changes that have taken place within the food industry over the last five years. Take for example, the Balmoral Food Pavillion which we started seven years ago with six companies. This year we had 90 producers and 45 of those started up in the last five years. There is a massive change in food production that has also been reflected in the food and drink offering in hospitality and restaurants. There are a huge number of awards being won by producers. It is almost like it has found its time. It is not a Utopia as there are still lots of challenges in the industry but I think given the change and the international recognition we are receiving its the right time to do it.

Janice Gault

It is a way of looking outwards and getting people here. We never have a problem feeding people when they are here, even politicians come home with what they would call a Stormont stone. The issue has been getting people here. A lot of other destinations have made food a key point we have never really talked about it. A lot of our product appears in some of the worlds finest restaurants but it is quite good if we can actually get people to come here. For us it is about tourism. It is about bringing people here and making sure they enjoy their stay.

John McGrillen

Tourism is about people going places to have an experience and food and drink is a critical element of that. When people come here looking for experiences we want them to be authentic. Food and drink is a critical part of that authenticity and affects how we position the Northern Irish brand in the marketplace. There are other places around the world that have used that as a key driver and motivation for people to visit. That might not yet be the case here but it is certainly an integral part of why people come and it also accounts for about a third of the expenditure from tourists. It accounts for around £300 million to the local economy which is quite significant and it sustains jobs in terms of bars and restaurants. We want to promote Northern Ireland as a destination of quality.

Jim Kitchen

The impact will be phenomenal. You can hardly go a month now without seeing some external lauding of Belfast restaurants. The year of food and drink has to be good for the whole province not just Belfast. There are an awful lot of terrific restaurants in Northern Ireland that make a great play of the local provenance of their food and rightly so because the raw materials we produce are second to none. I also hope it helps to stimulate local interest and it is important that we see the recognition of good eating right around the province and not just in Belfast.

Michele Shirlow

Derry came second in Foodie Town Ireland which was a big achievement. They were pipped at the post by the Burren. Foodie Town Ireland was organised by the Restaurants Association of Ireland across the island, so for a Northern Ireland city to come second and to beat off Kinsale and Dublin is a great achievement.

John McGrillen

Provenance is absolutely critical for the hospitality sector. We would encourage them to make the provenance known as thats what people are looking for, good local food, it adds value to the product and that has a business benefit in terms of sustainability in terms of sustaining businesses.

Jim Kitchen

Its a question of getting that message out. Tourism NI is going to a lot of trouble to do that. The best example that I know of is the little Hastings Hotel booklet that goes onto tables, which I would love to see replicated by some other providers because you get the story of the whole product, where it comes from and who is making it. It is really good and helps to sell the breakfast and everything else to visitors.

 

Donal Durkan

The first Focus on Food conference that the city council organised last year was about trying to encourage more local sourcing and we are organising a second conference, which will take place in February this year. The objective will be to develop the local food network so we have a better understanding of local food produce and to encourage the increasing of local sourcing.

Should Northern Ireland businesses promote food safety as part of the marketing of the Northern Ireland year of food and drink?

Maria Jennings

We have recently got involved in some of the trade missions whereby buyers are brought into Northern Ireland to look at our produce and to explore what we offer. The buyers particularly like the stories. They enjoy going out to the farms and then following through the processing and seeing how professional the sector is. When we explain about the food safety regime that underpins that, there is a reassurance that we are producing not just a quality product but a safe product.

 

 

Donal Durkan

A lot of that is very visible in the supermarket where you can see a picture of the farmer but it is not so visible in restaurants.

Michele Shirlow

We have been doing a lot of work around food safety stories. Northern Ireland is of a scale that it needs to focus on adding value and on quality. From a buyers perspective safety is almost a given. We need to get producers focused on our food being high quality and it needs to be seen as high quality. Whilst food safety is vastly important, ultimately it is also about taste.

Jim Kitchen

On the provenance issue, the success of the Open Farm weekend, which we have been doing for a couple of years, has been great with many farms over-subscribed. The UTV programme about the farming year had massive viewing figures with more people in Northern Ireland watching it than Coronation Street. That is a testament to the fact that people are interested in where their food comes from.

John McGrillen

Food safety may be a given but the consequences of getting it wrong are significant, particularly in a world driven by digital media. It only takes one tweet or one incident to undo years of work in terms of brand development for restaurants, food producers or even as a destination. Food safety is a crucial underpinning principle we all need to buy into.

Donal Durkan

We have seen this with scares such as salmonella, dioxins in pork through to the horse meat scandal in terms of reputational damage and the time and cost of trying to recover from those scares.

Maria Jennings

The food industry is very aware of that. We have worked hard behind the scenes in proactively dealing with issues that never come to the surface and avoiding them becoming incidents. From a consumer perspective, our highly visible food hygiene rating scheme offers consumers choice. We are very proud of the fact that 96 per cent of businesses within the scheme are compliant with food safety legislation and should be proud to display their rating as it gives people a choice. The scheme is voluntary at the moment but will become compulsory on 1 October 2016.

Donal Durkan

Of those businesses that are compliant only 50 per cent display their rating and of those that have zero, one or two stars only 22 per cent are displaying it which is understandable. By making it compulsory it will drive compliance, safety and reputation up.

Janice Gault

Hotels now all have four and five star food hygiene ratings and we dont have an issue about the rating. The problem for us is that we already have a grading scheme and therefore it can be very confusing. You could have a five star hotel with a three star food hygiene rating which would be very confusing. There is also an aesthetic issue. If you are one of the nicer hotels sticking something up that is not visually attractive actually detracts from the scheme. If it was displayed in a nicer way it would be better we have no problem in displaying the ratings.

Maria Jennings

The rating scheme is there to encourage those businesses to improve and we have officers on the ground to help those businesses improve. There is a lot of support behind the scheme and businesses should be able to achieve a five star rating.

Michele Shirlow

We fully support the scheme. The one concern we have is that it can be difficult for people who are producing a lot of complicated dishes to score a five. If you are a fast food outlet it is easier as you are consistently cooking a smaller number of items but if you are using a lot of seafood or fresh ingredients it is more of a challenge.

Could business in Northern Ireland do more to help consumers have a healthy balanced diet?

Janice Gault

This is very much going to come to the fore. We have huge portions in this part of the world. It is not uncommon to be serving people a 10oz steak with five different types of potato. Even in America, particularly at the high end, portions are becoming smaller compared to here. We dont do as much physical activity as we used to do and so we dont need to eat so much.

Jim Kitchen

We have a significant health problem with obesity in Northern Ireland with two thirds of people heavier than they should be. In my own view it is down to processed food for the most part, with its excess sugar, salt and fat. The more we can promote those local businesses serving fresh food, sourced locally the better off we will be.

We did a some research recently that showed that in the 20 years the main supermarkets have now been in Northern Ireland an additional 90,000 people have joined the overweight club. We have lost the default of cooking from scratch with fine raw ingredients.

Donal Durkan

It is extremely complicated and I dont think we can just pick out the retailers. It is an issue right across the supply chain.

Jim Kitchen

We do have a well-thought out obesity strategy but we havent really engaged beyond the public sector agencies. It would be great to get businesses involved in trying to tackle this issue. It is clearly in their interest.

Maria Jennings

We have worked closely with our industry partners on our new Caloriewise scheme where we are promoting the display of calories on menus as an important part of the scheme. It is now very normal for people to eat outside the home. In the past you might have gone out for a nice meal once a month. Many people now eat out every day, some even several times a day.

Janice Gault

Most people now go out to buy food for fuel. We have all heard of children in a teaching environment coming across a carrot and not being able to make an association. There is a missing link in education.

A lot of people now dont have a tradition of sitting down for a meal in the evening or cooking from scratch.

Michele Shirlow

Education is important. The type of cooking we were taught in domestic science in school was healthy and it didnt use processed food or a huge amount of salt or fat. Many cooking courses run by chefs are not aimed at every day cooking and are more about preparing meals for a dinner party, rather than a healthy option.

Maria Jennings

There is a big programme of food related education going on in schools, from primary one right through to GCSE. It is also built into other subjects such as the nutrition element in science.

Jim Kitchen

Unlike the rest of the UK we never lost that part of the curriculum.

Donal Durkan

The introduction of mandatory labelling on nutrition this year will help. There is certainly an obesity problem in Northern Ireland. We now have 8 per cent of 2 to 15 year olds classed as obese.

Jim Kitchen

There are often conflicting objectives. For example local councils have leisure centres and most of them have a gym and when you walk out of the gym there is a vending machine selling sports drinks full of lots of sugar. It is also happening in hospitals with vending machines selling sugary drinks.

Michele Shirlow

There has been a change in the restaurant scene with quite a lot of companies now offering healthy options. Any restaurant that is not thinking about healthy options at the minute are behind the trend.

Maria Jennings

There are also opportunities for food manufacturers, who could use the healthy eating message for marketing new products. It is an area that this province could do well in if we promoted our products in this way.

Michele Shirlow

Look at Mash Direct. It is a very healthy product with its fresh ingredients and yet still offering convenience. We dont actually produce very much processed products in Northern Ireland. For example, neither Marks and Spencer or Sainsburys source any of their ready-made meals in Northern Ireland.

It is difficult to change attitudes but there are some instances where we have done so. Some of our food events have had a no chips policy. For example, we ran a fish event in Derry and had some resistance to a policy of only fish and no chips. We are now in year four and it is going strong and is a sell out this year.

John McGrillen

There is perhaps a challenge for local councils around the concessions at their events. On one hand they are promoting healthy eating and on the other letting concessions to fast food operators.

Michele Shirlow

One thing I would like to see, particularly in this year of Food and Drink, would be more government buildings opting for more healthy and local produce.

Maria Jennings

There are definitely opportunities for our food businesses to start to think in different ways. Our Caloriewise pilot showed that if you serve a 4oz chicken breast instead of a 6oz one, or reduce the size of rice and pasta portions, people dont notice and your profit margin is increased and yet you are contributing to the overall health of the population.

Janice Gault

We put together a healthy breakfast programme with FSA which was quite enlightening. I have now taken to measuring my cereal because I worked out I was eating about 120gm of cereal, against a recommended 30gm.

Jim Kitchen

Domestically we are now spending less on food as a proportion of our income than we ever have. Food is not as expensive as a proportion of incomes. Having said that, there is a big problem of food poverty in Northern Ireland. We have been doing a lot of work on this, particularly in Belfast. It is an issue that doesnt get the visibility it deserves.

Maria Jennings

The businesses in Northern Ireland are supporting the FairShare project, which is distributing food donated by companies to the homeless.

Michele Shirlow

There is an issue around skills. There is a fantastic facility built at Colin Glen in Belfast. Its a kitchen facility to teach cooking skills to the community. We were approached to find demonstrators but we need to find a house wife, or house husband, to teach them the basics.

Can the FSA do more to help businesses in Northern Ireland?

Jim Kitchen

I think the FSA is doing a lot on the food safety side but I would like to see them do more to promote this whole idea of healthy eating. We do have an obesity crisis in Northern Ireland that is mostly down to inputs in my view. I think the more we can encourage offering good local healthy food, the better.

John McGrillen

The visitor to Northern Ireland has expectations which can differ from local people. They are looking for quality as opposed to quantity and if you can drive the portions down, drive the quality up and increase the margins that works to everybodys benefit.

 

Janice Gault

We have done quite a bit of work on this and feel it is about moving from inspection to advice. The role of the environmental health officer will change and compliance is now seen as a given. Giving advice is something that both we and the FSA should embrace. I dont think its a one way street.

Michele Shirlow

We need to look at some of the more unusual products that we do, such as the smoking with hay and the unpasteurised cheeses. We need to try and help focus on ways to help the high end chef and ask, how is risk determined? Is it all about being good for your health or is it safe to eat? We have a diverse food sector and we need to look to see how we can support the high end sectors.

Donal Durkan

From a council perspective we would ask that the funding the FSA supplies to district councils to allow them to carry out their food control functions continues. As a result of the recent review of business regulations, including food hygiene, there is a proposal to set up a FSA district council and industry forum to work together to support the industry to improve food safety whilst minimising the burden on the industry. We would like to see the FSA support the development of that forum.

Maria Jennings

From a FSA point of view, we are looking very much at a new regulatory regime along the lines of crediting businesses for what they are doing but also targeting the risk. I think over the years there have been miscommunications around the industry and the FSAs relationship so its just about trying to open up those lines of communication again and trying to help and support the business if we can.

 

 

Related Posts