It’s already proving a busy week for Irish food. Not only did today kick off the first day of the Eat Only Irish For a Week campaign, the brainchild of Brendan Allen of Castlemine Farm in Roscommon (who rears some mighty tasty lamb, should you ever come across it). It’s also Day Two of the week-long Heart|Land series on RTE radio and television, a series which explores our relationship with the land from which we once coaxed our breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Last night, investigative reporter Phillip Boucher-Hayes – who co-wrote the 2009 book Basketcase: What’s Happened to Ireland’s Food with wife Suzanne Campbell – followed up their initial forays into the underbelly of how we Irish eat (and what it might mean) with an hour-long documentary entitled What’s Ireland Eating? Suzanne Campbell has been fast establishing herself an authority on all things food and agricultural through forums such Radio One’s Today With Pat Kenny; The Irish Times and Irish Independent; Basketcase, the blog; and the inaugural For Food’s Sake discussion – and she acted as Food and Farming Consultant for this excellent piece of investigative journalism. The result was the kind of telly that justifies paying a TV licence, and of which we need more made.
There were many quotable figures worth getting your gob around. Such as, did you know that we Irish eat more ready-to-consume breakfast cereal than any other nation? Or that more than 40% of our diet is made up of processed foods (which, by its nature, is full of preservatives, and several steps away from the natural wholefood state that our bodies most easily recognise and respond to). Or that we Irish eat half the quantity of spuds we ate just 10 years ago, and that one third of that is in a fatty form such as crisps or chips? Or, that for every euro we spend on our five-a-day of fresh fruit and veg, we spend €1.60 on ‘treats’? (Think about it before you protest – I did, and it shut me up pretty quick.)
Seeing is believing, and it was the graphic display of what a pumped-up piece of pork looks like that got a lot of people proclaiming on social media networks that they were clearing that lunchbox staple of ham out of their family’s diet after last night’s viewing. Why? Well, it turns out that most ‘ham’ – traditionally, pork preserved by salting – is today preserved by being injected with a salt-water mix (brine) filled with preservatives such as nitrite, phosphate, dextrose and sodium ascorbate.
Now, it’s not just that all of these jolly extras add a whopping 20%+ extra weight to the final product (mostly in the form of so-cheap-it’s-free-water) that had people rethinking their favourite sandwich filling. No, I suspect it was more the weight of the health warning from none other than the World Cancer Research Fund. We’re all familiar by now with the advice regarding consumption of red meat and its connection with bowel cancer, which is the second most prevalent form of cancer going. Well, the clanging headline of the first half of this “eye-opening” documentary (the most repeatedly tweeted comment at the busy hashtag of #whatsirelandeating) is that the regular consumption of processed meats is significantly more likely to lead to bowel cancer than that of red meat. Rashers & bangers, chorizo & salami, sliced ham, the lot. Sure, some producers do it better than others, so there can be a certain damage limitation through considered sourcing, but certainly something worth starting to think about eh?
The documentary went on to raise many more interesting questions. Here’s one: would you pay attention to the country of origin of chicken bought in a supermarket? Yes? And you’d rather that it were Irish? Yes. In that, you are like most of us Irish.
What about when you order a chicken sandwich in a deli. Ever ask them where they source it? Or your chicken curry take-out? Or your roast chicken supreme and risotto in the local restaurant? What, you never think to ask?
Turns out, you’re no different to most of us, who tend to assume that third parties are serving us up Irish chuck. But, at one fifth the cost of domestically produced poultry, chicken imported from the likes of Thailand is too flapping cheap to resist for most outlets. The surprising thing is not that they make that choice on our behalf. The surprise is that we don’t think to check what choices they are making. After all, it doesn’t take much for us to make our voices heard. As the Bord Bia slogan goes, it’s a case of Just Ask(ing).
Anyway, there was lots more too (including a very powerful diatribe on the imbalance of power between supermarkets, consumers and suppliers), but at the end of a fact-packed hour’s worth of food documentary (which you can catch here if you missed it), several quotes packed a punch for their memorable simplicity. They went like this.
“Food is too important to treat like it’s any other business.” Reporter Phillip Boucher-Hayes.
“Every food choice is a political action.” One of the many well-informed talking heads informing our heads throughout the hour.
“We need to shop not just as consumers but as citizens too.” Another talking head. (Yes, I’m gonna have to go re-watch the programme too.)
All of this might have been rather depressing viewing of a Sunday night, were it not for the fact that Monday morning saw the start of that weeklong campaign I already referred to, which involves attempting to eat only food which can rightfully call Ireland its place of primary origin. This is a trickier definition than you might think – something I’ll return to later in the week to tease out.
For now, you might go read what Brendan Allen himself says of it on eatonlyirish.com. Or go read how two of the organisers from the For Food’s Sake collective get on with their endeavours to Eat Only/No Irish For A Week. If you’re inspired to join in, remember that rules are there to aspire to – and to be broken. Better to pay attention to what you’re eating and take part in this weeklong conversation than to decide it’s too difficult and give up before you’ve started.
Like I said, it’s a big week for Irish food. Will you play your small part in it?