Where's the beef?

By Gary Scattergood

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food Defra

Shadow food and farming minister, Huw Irranca-Davies
Shadow food and farming minister, Huw Irranca-Davies
Shadow food and farming minister Huw Irranca-Davies is talking up Labour's focus on food policy, says Gary Scattergood

If personality, passion and policy are the key qualities for political success, then Huw Irranca-Davies is two-thirds of the way there.

Labour's shadow food and farming minister is a gregarious Welshman who has plenty of enthusiasm for his brief, so much so that when he is in full flow it can be hard to get a word in edge ways.

What he, and his party, lack at the minute though, are cast-iron policies.

When it comes to the broad brush stroke of opinion on the likes of buying British produce ("It's the best in the world"​), driving down food waste ("it needs to be an ethical imperative for government and manufacturers"​) and traceability ("food chains have become too complex and too foggy"​), the train of thought is clear.

What isn't, yet, is how these views will be transferred to practical policies or government guidelines. It's a point Irranca-Davies is aiming to address in the coming months.

"Over the Spring and Summer I'm going to be enjoying myself at many of the food and farming shows," he says. He will be using them for a series of launches to promote British produce "while also getting the ideas that will shape our actual policies as we run up to the next General Election".

With that election still two years away, it isn't surprising that Irranca-Davies and his boss, the shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh, don't have a myriad of policy pledges in place, but the MP for Ogmore in South Wales is eager to stress that food policy would not be a sideshow in any future Labour administration.

Speaking in his office at Portcullis House in Westminster, he makes a strong case for it to be a central focus for all government departments and not something that is "marginalised in DEFRA​ (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)".

The industry's skills needs and opportunities for employment, exports and growth mean it needs to be a pivotal part of a dedicated industrial strategy, he believes.

"We've been working very closely with the shadow team at BIS​ (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) because we think there is total synchronicity with wider industrial policy. The sector offers enormous employment and export opportunities which could lead to huge benefits for the UK as a whole. This is one area that can help us pull out of the economic climate we are in now."

When asked if that meant food policy would be better suited in BIS than DEFRA, he said that was a decision "above his pay grade"​, adding wherever it sat, the key issue was make sure it carried more clout in government.

"At the moment DEFRA ministers are going on trade missions around the World and they are developing food policy around the Green Food Project — which does have some good points — but we would argue they are not punching their weight sufficiently in the wider government departments,"​ he says.

"When any discussion is happening on employment, growth, energy and industrial strategy, it is vital that we always have the voice of the food sector there as well."

British is best

One of the areas Irranca-Davies will clearly be putting at the heart of Labour's food policy is around public procurement of food. These measures will be weighted heavily in favour of buying British produce for schools, hospitals and government organisations. "We think there is more the government could do to promote British produce and food manufacturing, and to be honest there is more that we could have done when we were in government,"​ he admits.

"At the minute this issue is being taken forward in small steps by DEFRA when they really need to fundamentally grab it and make sure more British products are used in the UK, let alone in terms of exports."

Isn't it the case though, that a concrete commitment to buying British produce might drive up the cost of the state's food bill?

On the contrary, he says, it will help grow food production in Britain, which will create more jobs, boost exports and help realign the balance of payments deficit. "Buying British and growing the industry offers enormous employment opportunities and has a huge impact on the balance of trade. It can lead to massive benefits for the UK as a whole,"​ he argues.

Like any savvy politician, Irranca-Davies wants to position policy where public opinion lies, and he is adamant there is an increasingly strong consumer appetite for good quality British produce that is available at a fair price for both the shopper and producer — two factors heightened by last year's dairy crisis and the horsemeat scandal.

"You should not have to break the bank to fill your trolley on the high street or in the supermarket because there is plenty of innovation that can be done across the food chain to make sure the consumer gets good value,"​ he says. "But it is also important there is fairness right across the supply chain for, producers, processors, distributors and for the supermarkets too.

"Interestingly, consumers often lead on these issues. One of the big changes with the dairy crisis was not only that dairy farmers were up in arms, but that consumers were saying 'it doesn't feel right' that we are buying milk that is well below the price of production."

With that in mind, Irranca-Davies is willing to take the case to the wider public to say that while affordable food is essential, it is as equally important to make sure that people can make a living. He is prepared, he says, to put his faith in consumers being much "more switched on"​ than politicians often give them credit for.

"They don't want to see exploitation, they don't want to see people not being able to earn a living and they don't want to eat horsemeat unless they've chosen to eat horsemeat. They say they'll pay for good, nutritious food but do so at a fair and affordable price. People don't want a race to the bottom where the cheapest possible food is put on supermarket shelves because that ends up in catastrophe,"​ he adds.

Wake-up call

One such catastrophe was the recent horsemeat scandal. He is pleased that, in many cases, it is likely to lead to shorter supply chains.

Nevertheless, he believes the criminal activity and lack of care around traceability needs to be a "wake-up call"​ to the entire industry, not just the retailers and manufacturers that were affected.

"The industry as a whole needs to give confidence and credibility that they know what ingredients are in any particular package and that they are minimising the chances of something like this happening again. This could have been a food safety and human health issue, as it is, it looks like being a traceability and authenticity issue,"​ he says.

Irranca-Davies says his passion for food began because of a family history of upland hill farming, before really taking off after meeting his wife Joanna: "a wonderful woman with an Italian background"​. He went from being a "boy from the valleys who lived on a diet of egg and chips"​, to enjoying lots of pasta and fresh produce, he says.

N​ow he loves to spend time wandering around farmers' markets, but says it's his ambition to get much of that produce on supermarket shelves and to the wider population.

"One of the things that interests me is how we build the link between people taking a brightly packaged product off a shelf in a store and realising where it comes from. This is where things like protected foods really switch me on."

With the number of British products with EU protected food status because of its geographical location or traditional recipe well below the European average even though the volume of sales is strong Irranca-Davies is pledging to devise a scheme to help firms battle through the barriers to application.

This, he believes, will create greater pride in British produce, similar to that experienced in many other European countries.

"I want people to understand more about the food they eat and to take pride in the food industry. We have some wonderful products, producers and manufacturers but we don't always talk about it enough."

Regardless of what you think about his political views, I suspect that's not a criticism that could be made about Irranca-Davies. His challenge now is to turn the talk into clear policies and to make sure people are listening.

Listen to our exclusive podcast​ interview with Irranca-Davies to find out why he is uneasy about the government's 'gung-ho' approach to GM foods.

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