August 28th Morning: The Recession Diaries

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a1_pig.jpg There are any number of issues that should be tackled in recession times. I won’t list them, you know them. But bashing EU regulations is not one of them, especially when you indulge in that great Tory, ‘Little Englander’ chicken-little past-time of fabricating regulations that don’t exist, just to have a bash.

And when that bashing comes from the ‘progressive’ side of the House, you just have to laugh so that you don’t cry. Labour’s Senator Alan Kelly, the party’s Euro candidate in the South Constituency, was outraged at the latest set of EU regulations in a statement he released yesterday:

‘Senator Kelly was commenting on the disclosure that new EU regulations have banned the consumption of cakes and confectionary entered at country fairs and agriculture shows immediately after baking competitions. “This is regulation gone mad. Bakery competitions have been a traditional feature of country fairs and agricultural shows for generations and there has never been the slightest evidence that they posed any threat to health. Already farmers’ markets and small food producers are under threat, by over-zealous regulation and this new directive now threatens to undermine fairs and agricultural shows.”

There are a number of problems with this approach but first, and probably the biggest is that its not true at all. Martin Territt, director of the European Commission representation in Ireland, was fairly savage:

“This story is a typical Euro-lie and is completely false. There are no EU rules banning the eating of cakes at agricultural shows. Any rules are only there to cover businesses. In fact, they specifically protect agricultural cake fairs and other traditional events. People producing food occasionally and on a small scale are not covered by the rules.”

This myth has been doing the blog rounds – peddled by British and American sites whose only purpose in life is to denounce the EU.

This is not the first time that Senator Kelly has gone in for EU bashing. Last June he had a go at the EU’s Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points ( HACCP) – a major bulwark in food safety – for being a ‘burden’ on traditional artisan and small niche producers. This is an old debate and the more reactionary business elements have been predicting the demise of small producers ever since the new system was introduced 10 years ago. But what do the actual small producers think?

The Food Safety Consultative Council surveyed artisan and traditional food producers to find out their attitudes towards food safety regulations. 63 percent did not find food safety regulations difficult to comply with, while only 15 percent found such regulations a ‘primary concern’. But here’s the killer:

90% of producers surveyed regard a food safety management system based on the principles of (HACCP) as a help to them in ensuring that the products they produce are safe. Having a good product, produced to the highest food safety standards can only be an asset to assist the sector gain entry to new markets and retailers.

A help. An assistance Granted, this survey was conducted back in 2003 – but this was long after HACCP bedded down. So what is behind this EU bashing, designed to get a passing headline? A fundamental failure to understand that businesses depend on regulation, that regulation enhances business profitability because it ensures consumer confidence. Indeed, were Ireland able to brand its small and traditional food producers as ‘the safest, the cleanest and the greenest’ – it could open new markets both here and abroad. With more consumers concerned about the safety, quality and production of their food, there’s a growing market out there.

But what would happen if consumers lose confidence in our food safety? They’ll purchase from elsewhere – sending local profits plummeting.

Just to show this is not academic argument, go on to this website – Tullywood Farm. Featured in the Irish Times last weekend, it is an artisan producer par excellence, concentrating on free-range pig production – of breeds that are in danger of becoming extinct. The enthusiasm on their webpages is infectious – for both their product and the way they produce it. AND they prominently feature:

‘Tullywood Farm are HACCP Compliant * All staff have completed HACCP & Food Safety and Hygiene Courses’

It’s not that they don’t have a problem with food safety. It’s more – that this business knows that food safety is absolutely critical to their success. Regulation, therefore, assists them (now if I can only figure out how to buy some of their products without having to go al the way down to Roscommon).

At the end of the day, this is about the race-to-the-bottom. We have to suffer right-wing diatribes demanding wage-cuts, public spending cuts, regulation cuts. They claim these are an impediment to business prosperity. We can go down this road – and suffer a deterioration in our competitiveness, our markets, our prosperity and our small producers.

Or we can take the high-road – which leads us all to a much better place. I don’t expect right-wingers to lead us there. I do expect politicians from progressive parties to do so.

NOTE: Have some fun – go to the EU Commission Office’s website and explore all the nonsensical myths that are put about, especially on regulations.

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