Meeting the great food challenge - NI

27, June 2007. The changing nature of food and the role it plays in the lives of people on the island of Ireland represents an ongoing challenge, particularly in maintaining and improving public health. With obesity clearly identified as the biggest public health challenge on the island, safefood has a responsibility to try to improve our eating habits, north and south.

As chief executive, Martin Higgins explains, there is no quick and easy way of dealing with the health and lifestyle problems created by our dietary choices. “We need ten years to address the problem of obesity. It will take time to see the benefits of diet changes and exercise.”

safefood believes that we need to continually communicate with consumers in a way which they can easily understand. We’re currently in the second phase of our ‘Superfoods’ campaign which aims to show that ordinary, every day foods such as bananas, peas and wholegrain bread can be the real ‘stars’ of our diets. With this phase of the campaign, we are using animated TV ads and cartoons to try to engage with children, on the basis that our younger generations need to be encouraged to develop lifelong healthy eating habits as a matter of real urgency.”

safefood is hoping that this latest phase of the ‘Superfoods’ campaign will build on the encouraging results of the campaign’s first round of activity. 84% of people said that the campaign made them more aware of the nutritional value of ordinary foods and 77% said they had already changed or planned to change their dietary habits. However Martin is far from complacent: “We need to continually reinforce these messages to have real and lasting impact on people’s behaviour.”

“We are also conscious that we need to provide consumers with practical tools to help them support their desire to change the way they eat. In the last year we launched the Kid’s Food Challenge which distributed 130,000 packs to parents across the island of Ireland. Developed by experts in public health, nutrition, education and psychology, this pack is based on a ‘sticker chart’ reward system but also includes accessible, practical information for parents. We have been greatly encouraged by its success but continually measure and evaluate our performance in terms of our impact on consumers’ behaviour. We have no illusions about the scale of the problem which poor diet and lack of exercise is creating within society.”

safefood’s responsibilities extend beyond its campaigning nutritional messages to the broader area of food safety. This wide remit will see  safefood communicating with consumers on how to avoid food poisoning during the summer barbecue season as well as addressing issues such as food storage, food preparation and basic hygiene, all of which Higgins believes are of increasing importance. “With the move to convenience food, we are losing some of our basic cooking and food preparation skills. It is vital that consumers know how to deal with raw meat and poultry, storing and cooking them properly, to protect themselves and their families. Foodborne illnesses are still a significant issue on the island of Ireland and we make no apology for continuing to remind consumers of this through annual campaigns around key occasions such as summer barbecues and Christmas. In Northern Ireland, we work closely with the Food Standards Agency NI and the Environmental Health Officers in District councils to maximise the educational potential and consumer awareness of National Food Safety Week.”

Research underpins all of safefood’s work, whether in nutrition or food safety. The organisation has a history of identifying critical issues and addressing them through robust research, as well as facilitating the sharing of experience and research findings across the island of Ireland. safefood funds a range of research on nutrition, food safety, microbiology and toxicology, working with research experts. “There is so much new information emerging on food and we want to ensure that we are ready to meet the challenges as they arise. If we are to continue to be a trusted and reliable source of information for consumers on the island of Ireland, we must continue to have the best evidence available. As well as commissioning and supporting research, we are also committing to providing platforms to share new learnings, explore best practice and ensure that there is greater co-operation and sharing between research facilities on the island of Ireland.”

“Food safety and nutrition is a complex and dynamic environment and the challenges are not unique to one jurisdiction. It makes sense that we face the challenges together and pool our knowledge of expertise to maintain and improve public health across the island.”