Speakers at a food summer school have urged the Government to protect food labelling terms such as farmhouse and artisan so consumers are not misled.
Evan Doyle, chairman of the Taste Council, told the summer school in Macredddin, Co Wicklow that consumers relied on food labels to inform their decisions when shopping.
“The terms used on a food label often describe a unique process or origin which the consumer values – such as farmhouse, artisan, local and traditional,” he said.
The word artisan on a label indicates that the product is high quality and usually made by hand using traditional methods.
“At present these terms are unprotected and can be used by industrial producers, large and small, thus misleading the consumer and endangering the livelihood of our genuine artisan producers,” Mr Doyle said.
The summer school was organised by the Taste Council – a voluntary representative group of the smaller food business sector – and Bord Bia.
The artisan and speciality food sector currently employed nearly 5,000 people in full- and part-time positions in 400 firms, said Mr Doyle, who runs the BrookLodge Hotel in Macreddin. These businesses had a combined output of €400 million.
The Taste Council believed the sector could provide 7,500 new jobs and an additional €4.1 billion to the local economy over the next eight years if nurtured.
“There are many benefits of a thriving artisan food industry including rural-based employment, high value-added production, food tourism and the development of a food culture and image which enhances the brand of all Irish foods,” Mr Doyle said.
“If we wish this invaluable industry to continue, we must protect their main means of differentiation in the marketplace – their label,” he added.
Food and consumer affairs lawyer Raymond O’Rourke said he believed there was a major opportunity to help the artisan sector through the use of food labelling laws.
He said the enforcement authorities tended to concentrate on the food safety and nutrition aspects of food labelling yet the rules also demanded that consumers are not misled about the origin of products.
“We must not allow fraudulent claims on food labels to undermine Irish artisan products,” he said. “Only by establishing a clear legal definition for the use of the term artisan can we have a level playing field for the Irish artisan sector.”
Mr O’Rourke said that the term artisan was “popping up on all sorts of products” from sandwiches to pizza but it meant “absolutely nothing”.
The business information group Datamonitor UK found that in the past five years some 800 new products had emerged with the word artisan in the label.
Mr O’Rourke highlighted Bord Bia research which found that people in the Republic were far more likely than people in Britain or Northern Ireland to check the country of origin of a food product before buying it.
Some 36 per cent of people in the Republic said they always checked the country of origin, compared with 11 per cent of people in Northern Ireland and 13 per cent of people in Britain.
Almost one-third of people in the Republic said they always looked for a quality symbol on food compared with 10 per cent of people in Northern Ireland and 14 per cent in Britain.
Kevin Sheridan of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers highlighted the importance of promoting Ireland’s small day-fishing industry.
He said the Taste Council wanted to work with the relevant agencies to build the public’s awareness of these small fishing fleets.
“Community-based sustainable fishing can become the next success story in Irish food,” he said.