Food imports soar despite growing safety concerns
IRISH people each eat a tonne of imported food a year, despite more than half of consumers saying they are concerned about its quality.
A new report by food safety promotion body Safefood finds that 54pc of consumers are concerned about the safety and production standards of food imports, yet this hasn't stopped the average person from eating €1,000 worth of it every year.
Safefood concludes that consumers have nothing to fear from imports as sufficient checks are in place throughout the EU and at border entry points, and there is no evidence of increased illness from eating it.
Food imports to Ireland soared by 50pc between 2002 and 2007 and we now import €4.7bn worth -- some 3.7 million tonnes in all.
That means it accounts for nearly half of all the food we eat in this country, which Safefood said was down to changing consumer tastes and a desire for a wider variety of foods.
But the most crucial issue is cost, as many foods can be produced more cheaply overseas.
Cereals, fruit and vegetables, prepared food such as chocolate, and drinks such as coffee and tea, are our main food imports.
We also import over €1bn worth of meat and dairy products despite being a major exporter of these products ourselves.
Safefood's survey found that consumers were more concerned about food from outside the EU than that coming from other EU countries.
While most of the meat and dairy products we import are from other EU countries, including Northern Ireland, a significant amount of fruit, cereals and vegetables is imported from countries such as China, Costa Rica and South Africa.
And a simple product such as pizza can contain ingredients from dozens of countries.
People were most concerned about the quality of imported fresh meat (60pc), followed by frozen meat and poultry (52pc), and fruit and vegetables (29pc).
Many also wanted clearer information about the origins and source of food as they found current information misleading and unclear, said Safefood scientific support manager Dr Aileen McGloinn.
"Our research also indicated consumers perceive local or homegrown products to be more authentic or of higher quality than imported," Dr McGloinn said.
The report said it was recognised that increased international trade could result in imported food spreading illness, particularly in raw foods such as salad and vegetables.
In recent years there had been one outbreak of salmonella associated with imported lettuce affecting 113 people in the North in 2004. There was one suspected case in the Republic but this had not been confirmed.
However, there had also been a number of cases of illness associated with Irish produce, as well as last year's pigmeat dioxin scare, showing things could go wrong in any country, Dr McGloinn said.
"The bottom line is that the greatest risks from food probably happen in your own kitchen, and that is where we would urge consumers to exercise the most care," she said.