Before I get to this week’s spud topic, this is something that I think is worth your attention.
Tuesday was the Irish Government’s Budget Day – delivered to the tune of their austerity anthem – while Wednesday was no less than World Food Day – an initiative of the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organisation, with a theme based around sustainable food systems and food security (or how we ensure that people have ongoing access to food without destroying the planet in the process). On Thursday, however, it was another organisation that brought the intersection of these two events into sharp, local focus when news of an urgent appeal for support by Irish Seed Savers hit social media channels.
Irish Seed Savers is a Co. Clare based non-governmental organisation dedicated to the conservation of Ireland’s plant genetic resources, and they maintain a seed bank with over 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties, along with native Irish apple and grain collections, as well (of course) as a collection of heirloom varieties of potato. In their appeal, they point out that knowledge of, and access to, this seed base brings with it at least some control over Ireland’s future food security, but with severe cuts in funding from the Dept. of Agriculture in recent years, the survival of Irish Seed Savers – like the survival of the seeds they save – is in very real danger. You can read about the appeal and ways to support the organisation here.
I used to think of Tayto – or, rather, Largo Foods, Ray Coyle’s snack manufacturing business, which makes Tayto, Hunky Dorys, King Crisps and others here in Ireland – as the big fish in crisp terms. And, relative to some of the newer entrants to the Irish crisp market, like Keogh’s and O’Donnells, that, I suppose, is the case. This week, however, has given my big fish notions a bit of Big Food perspective.
I attended an event in Belfast during the week, organised by Invest N.I. to showcase their Great Taste Award winners (which were many and impressive) and spoke to Robert Brown, Group Promotions and PR Manager for Tayto Northern Ireland. Now, for those of you who get confused by such things, Tayto N.I. is a different company entirely to that which we in the Republic know and love as Tayto. Back in 1956, a couple of years after Joe ‘Spud’ Murphy started making the original Tayto Cheese ‘n’ Onion crisps, a businessman from Northern Ireland, Thomas Hutchinson, licensed the Tayto name – for the princely sum of £250, according to this article – for his own fledgling crisp enterprise. Both versions of Tayto have grown considerably since, with Tayto in the Republic subsumed into Largo Foods, while Tayto N.I. is still privately owned by the Hutchinson family.
Though they have always been separate entities, Robert Brown indicated that there is an open communication between the two Tayto makers, not least because they have a common – and very powerful – enemy. Enemy says you? Sure it’s only a bag (or two) of Tayto? But snack food is big business and the enemy to which Robert was referring is Walker’s, one of the largest operators in the U.K. crisp market and, by extension, PepsiCo, the multinational behemoth that now owns it.
Walker’s is just one of a slew of brands controlled by the PepsiCo corporation, which includes the Pepsi-Cola, Frito Lay, Gatorade, Quaker and Tropicana companies, and, according to their website, has a portfolio which includes 22 brands that each generate more than $1 billion in estimated annual retail sales. An article I read on potato sourcing in Chile by PepsiCo includes the following line:
One of PepsiCo’s key objectives is to be the world’s No. 1 supplier of food products.
That scared me, more than a little.
And it scares the Tayto people too, though they work together to try to keep the PepsiCo brands – self-described as “muscular” brands that compete globally and leverage scale and distribution power – at bay here in Ireland. Though both Tayto and Tayto N.I. are still the big sellers in their respective markets, Walker’s has made significant inroads. A report, earlier this year, on the biggest selling grocery brands in the Republic, shows Walker’s at number 9 and Tayto at number 6 (while the top 10 list paints a picture of a nation who, apart from a few pints of milk and the odd sliced pan, survive mostly on crisps, chocolate and fizzy drinks).
It is that last observation that brings me to an article this week in the Irish Times (***) in which Professor Mike Gibney, head of UCD’s Centre for Food and Health, told a meeting organised by the Food Safety Authority that fast food and soft drinks account for “a minority” of calories we consume and played down their role in the obesity epidemic. Somebody might want to show Prof. Gibney that article on Ireland’s best-selling grocery brands: Coca-Cola tops the list for the ninth year in a row – it’s a better seller than Avonmore, in 2nd place – with 7-up (another PepsiCo brand) and Lucozade also in the top 10, along with the crisps mentioned above and Cadbury’s chocolate. Is that not some kind of hint that we might, as a nation, be consuming more high calorie snacks and drinks than is good for us (and I’m no innocent – readers here will know that I am not averse to the (more than) occasional packet of crisps, while potatoes lend themselves especially well to the snack food industry). The truth is that PepsiCo and the other Big Food folks know exactly what they’re at and they’re laughing all the way to the bank. Comments such as those by Prof. Gibney just help to smooth the way.