Clare Smyth calls out the government and big corporations in a bid to change the future of food

The  Staff Canteen
At last month’s Food on the Edge in Galway, three Michelin-starred chef Clare Smyth from Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, chose to address the issues of fair trade, sustainability and championing small artisan producers. She believes it is not only these small producers who should be paid fairly for their produce but also chefs should equally be paid fairly for their craft. The Staff Canteen highlights her presentation which calls out the government and big corporations in a bid to change the future of food for the better. clare smyth FOTE low resFarming is something really close to Clare Smyth’s heart and in her roots as she grew up on a farm in Northern Ireland. She left home at 16-years-old to move to England and become a chef. She was obsessed by cooking and wanted to be the best that she could. She was prepared to put her all into it and on her first apprenticeship the chef couldn’t believe the knowledge she had for someone at such a young age. She said: “I didn’t realise or even think about it until many years later, but it was because of my upbringing. Food and produce were a big part of my childhood and every meal was cooked from scratch and as children one of our chores was to cook – we would pick seaweed, limpets, my aunt grew the potatoes and we had whole animals butchered, frozen down and we used every last cut. “My family worked, and still do, albeit on a much smaller scale, 365 days a year, in all seasons from dawn to dusk – and during lambing season, all through the night as well. It was this that really made me appreciate food and respect produce.” For the last 20 years Clare has also been working from dawn until midnight and often into the small hours of the morning all to produce the best quality food that she can. And the real point she wants to make is the unromantic bit about how things have changed and are still changing.gordon and clare featured “Most of the changes are driven purely by money and large corporations,” she explained. “Does it frustrate you when people complain about the cost of food in restaurants and in the news how they continuously hype up the cheapest supermarkets and their profits like it’s something to be proud of? Well it does me. “If you added up all the hours worked by farmers and chefs, do you think it would meet the guidelines for national minimum wage or do you think that they would comply with fair trade guidelines within our own country?” She added: “Earlier this year, Prime Minister David Cameron said that he would rather take the G7 leaders such as Barack Obama and Angela Merkle to Nando’s than to our restaurant because it offers better value for money. I thought this was a real slap in the face for gastronomy considering the hospitality industry was one of the only industries to grow during the recession in the UK.

>>> Read: David Cameron opts for Nando's over Gordon Ramsay as the chain is 'best value for money'

“What an ignorant thing to say but it wouldn’t be the first time a politician was talking nonsense! “The irony of the whole thing is when you buy a portion of spicy chicken at Nando’s in the UK the cash flows straight into a network of accounting devices in Malta, the Isle of Man, Panama, Luxemburg – avoiding paying taxes in the UK. Yes, well done Mr Cameron! I’m not even going to go there on how those chickens are reared and fast food chains and the obesity crisis. Good value for money – I don’t think so. david cameron nandos“Don’t get me wrong, we all love what we do and it’s obviously our passion for producing food that drives us but should this be exploited or taken for granted? We’ve already lost and will continue to lose so much more until we open people’s eyes to what is actually happening to our food supply.” Clare explained that both chefs and farmers are in short supply and how we’re told that the only financially sustainable businesses are the mass produced kind. Small farms, the backbone of rural culture are the first to go out of business – this means that only the large farms will survive and they are being forced to intensify and grow bigger. Forcing further negative implications on the environment, animal welfare, communities and most of all our health. She continued: “Supermarkets appear to be colluding with each other to drive prices down, forcing farmers out of business and putting whole communities at stake, then claiming they are doing it to benefit the consumer. The recent milk scandal brought this to the public’s attention in a way that hadn’t happened before. There was a public outcry, ‘why do farmers get paid less than the production of milk? Why is a litre of milk cheaper at some supermarkets than a litre of water?’ “The problem lies in a distorted, economic system that promotes globalised, industrialised, commodity style food – we live in an era of artificially cheap food and the role of mass retailers and their failure to act responsibly cannot be underestimated.” There are government guidelines set down in the production of food and rearing animals which all farmers have to adhere to in order for the public to be protected. But how are they protected? When cheaper produce is continually imported from countries with none of these meat Clare said: “This seems ludicrous to me. Many farming practises and use of hormones were bannned in the UK in Ireland and rightly so but these practises are continued in many countries and they are much worse, enabling them to add greater production and cheaper prices – undercutting our own farmers. Despite all our own regulations we end up eating food pumped full of all the things our own country banned. What’s the sense in that? “There are no government guidelines on what happens to the minimum cost of food once it enters the supply chain of the supermarket in addition there are other guidelines set in place for national minimum wage but the current pricing practise of the supermarket economy ensures that the whole farming community barely manage to attain that. “The whole chain is broken.” Consumers have their part to play too. As Clare explained that making choices based on price alone not only jeopardises the lively hood of people producing and rearing food but it also jeopardises the quality of the future food chain itself. She said: “Wouldn’t it be better to look at supermarket shelves and know, that producer had been paid a fair days wage for a fair days work and in the process the food was produced in a sustainable way? Fair trade and sustainability are interlinked, it’s about societies, the environment, the economy and health coupled with animal welfare, decent working conditions and fair wages.“It’s about making governments trade fairly and inspire shoppers to think about their purchases. We also really need to educate people on the variety of what they eat, we need to eat different things that are in season and look at waste.” “Here is an example,” she added. “People turn their noses up at veal because of poor practises in the past. Recently I was serving milk fed veal in the restaurant, a beautiful product, farmed by a farmer in the Lake District and we had to buy the whole animal to make it sustainable as it’s expensive to produce. I was surprised by people’s ignorance on eating baby cows, they had an opinion that we shouldn’t eat veal and that it was cruel. I asked them if they drank milk and how did they think it was produced? Did they not realise that a lot of calves are just shot at birth – what a waste!” Clare believes one of the passions of chefs is to help champion quality, smaller, artisan producers that produce sustainably. Chefs pay a fair price for those ingredients but time and time again during talks like Food On The Edge, we go back to the importance of the farmer, the cost of quality produce, the cost of running our restaurants – these are all very real issues. “Chefs too need to be paid a fair price for their craft,” explained Clare. “The price of food on a plate in a restaurant as opposed to a supermarket shelf needs to be addressed as well. If you called out a plumber to fix a leaking pipe, they charge a call out fee, petrol, parking, the parts used – every single minute they are in the building. Can you imagine if chefs worked like that? If we added up every cost, every hour worked – could you imagine how much food in a high-end restaurant would actually cost?” She added: “We need to continue to raise awareness, open peoples eye so on a mass scale – cheap, or things that seem to be good value, more often than not means that somewhere along the line someone or something is being exploited. The chef, the farmer, the animal or the environment “Let’s look at the real cost of food and do something about it – this is the role of the modern chef.” By Cara Pilkington @canteencara
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The  Staff Canteen

The Staff Canteen

Editor 12th November 2015

Clare Smyth calls out the government and big corporations in a bid to change the future of food