Opinion

It could take years for Japan and South Korea to deliver on behalf of Food Ireland

Michael Creed’s ongoing diplomatic charm offensive in Japan and South Korea follows on from the visit by his Agriculture, Food and Marine ministerial predecessor Simon Coveney to China back in 2014.

It is critically important for Ireland’s food message to be communicated in these countries. But it will take time for all of this effort to be translated into hard export sales.

Asia’s emerging economies are keen to buy high-quality food from suppliers around the world.

But it has to be just that. Offering them product that doesn’t tick all the boxes really is a road to nowhere.

China got its fingers burnt, courtesy of the melamine crisis of 2008, which implicated the New Zealand dairy co-operative Fonterra. It will come as no surprise to learn that our friends in Beijing and surrounding parts have long memories.

If we want to do real business with the growing economies of Asia – and other parts of the world – then it’s all about the length of the paper trail that accompanies the consignments of food heading for these destinations.

I know that farmers whinge about form filling, red tape and inspections. But this is the future.

For example, Ireland must be able to demonstrate full traceability, when it comes to doing business with the rest of the world. And, increasingly, this will be the case when it comes to animal welfare and environmental protection.

Let me put it this way. If I go into hospital, I want to be sure that the doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff are fully trained and certified to allow them provide the standard of care and service that I might need.

So it stands to reason that farmers should take the same approach when it comes to them producing food.

But this is far from a bad news story. Where farm quality assurance is concerned, almost all of the world’s agri-food powerhouses trail in our wake. A case in point is Canada’s beef industry.

I was lucky enough to have the opportunity of visiting ranches in that part of the world a few months ago. One of the first things that struck me was that calves born on the range are not officially tagged until they are at least a number of months old.

This reflects the logistics of managing beef cattle out on the prairie. But it’s a state-of-affairs that weakens possible claims from Canada’s beef industry regarding the traceability of its output.

Brazil is another country that has real difficulty when it comes to putting assurance schemes in place, particularly where that country’s beef sector is concerned.

Coming back to home, I know that the Irish beef industry has genuine worries regarding the outcome of the upcoming Brexit negotiations and future access to the UK market.

Don’t get me wrong. Brexit is important. But I would suggest that keeping the UK supermarkets on-board, from a quality assurance perspective, is an issue with an even greater priority rating.

In the meantime, it could take years for Japan and South Korea to really deliver for the Irish food industry. But someone has to sow the seeds for the future. And that’s exactly what Michael Creed is doing right now.