Darina Allen warns of trade deal threat to Irish food market
Top chef says to allow US meat produce into Ireland could have 'disastrous' consequences, writes Rachel Lavin
The doyenne of Irish food, Darina Allen, has turned her hand to many mammoth tasks in her career; rising the perfect pavlova, baking a Christmas fruit cake that is not too moist, not too dry, and adding delicious twists to traditional Irish staples such as classic brown soda bread. But Darina is now turning her attention to geopolitics and what she believes is a potentially disastrous trade agreement between the US and the EU which could irrevocably threaten the Irish food market.
Speaking from her kitchen in the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School, Darina talks passionately about her love for food and the world of 'farm to table' produce she has created around her.
"Food is there to nourish us and keep us healthy," she says. "So the fresher and more naturally produced, it's unquestionably better for you. Our food should be our medicine."
Darina's commitment to Irish food has been a staple of her cooking career. Where many Irish chefs are tempted to eschew Ireland's staple dishes and instead experiment with the more exotic flavours of Indian, Thai or Italian cuisine, Darina has never wavered in her appreciation for traditional Irish food.
"We're really blessed here in Ireland that we can actually produce nourishing, wholesome food. We can grow grass like nowhere else, some of our best foods, our beef and our lamb and our dairy products come from our grass, they're fantastic quality."
Irish farmers export 90pc of what they produce, contributing €3bn to the Irish economy yearly and feeding an estimated 30 million people worldwide, from the UK to as far as China. You could say that Ireland is possibly the best small country in the world to do beef.
However, Darina warns, this could all be under threat because of a new trade agreement between the EU and the US. The EU is currently in talks with the US to establish a transatlantic trade agreement, the 'Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership' (TTIP), the aim of which is to remove 'unnecessary tariffs' on trade.
The Irish government estimates that if TTIP gets approval, Ireland's GDP would be increased by 1.1pc with 5,000-10,000 extra jobs created in exporting sectors. It also predicted new opportunities for many Irish industry sectors, including pharmaceuticals and chemicals, Agri-food (notably dairy and processed food), insurance and machinery. However, it also states that Ireland's beef producers may have to prepare for increased competition from US beef producers in the European market and Darina warns that allowing American meat produce into Ireland could have disastrous effects for our regulated food market.
"In America, they're using intensive farming methods," she explains. "Thousands of cattle are held in feed lots in sheds and yards and pumped with growth hormones to gain weight as fast as possible. It's a whole different product. They are also produced at a lower unit cost so it would be very difficult for the Irish country farmers, it would be unfair competition."
As well as flooding Ireland's meat market, Darina raises the question of reduced health standards.
"TTIP has stated it will abandon the precautionary principle, this is a system whereby chemicals and pesticides must be proven to be safe for human health before they're allowed to be used in food. In the US, the opposite is the case. Many carcinogenic and endocrine-disrupting chemicals are used in food production. It's a different system. They verify the safety of the end product, so for example, instead of making sure that they are rearing chickens that they don't get infected with pathogens during the rearing and slaughter, they dip (the meat product) in chlorine solution at the end of the meat production chain to rid them of pathogens. TTIP would make it impossible to ban the import of these foods into Europe."
It's not just the food industry that could potentially suffer. The Irish Cancer Society issued a report warning that the trailblazing Irish laws on plain cigarette packaging could be challenged. SIPTU has expressed concern for workers' rights and An Taisce have warned against any moves toward environmental deregulation.
"It's just outrageous. It's not about the public health of the nation; it's about the profits of the multi-nationals," she says.
Darina admits: "There are elements of TTIP that could be beneficial; we don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Milk producers would probably benefit because remember, in Ireland we produce beautiful quality milk that is less expensive as well, as our cows are grass fed. There could be good effects for some sectors."
However, when it comes to the quality of her meat, this lady is not for turning. As a representative for Slow Food Ireland, Darina is campaigning to make people aware of what TTIP entails. She has been contacting Ireland's MEPs, making calls to Brussels, exchanging information with activists in Ireland and is now calling on ordinary members of the public to do the same.The final draft of the proposed trade agreement may not be finalised until the end of 2016 and would have to be approved by a majority of MEPs.
"I'm hoping the MEPs will keep an eye on this and will be batting for Ireland and Europe," she said..