Simon Thomas AM
Isn’t Welsh food brilliant? Not just milk, everything.
We have the best pasture in the world; high quality animal welfare; the best leeks, and cockles and mussels that would shame Chesapeake Bay or Mont Saint Michel.
I eat Welsh food all the time, but I am lucky I live in the foodie Mecca that is Aberystwyth. It’s not so easy to pick through the “Red Tractor” and Union Jack branded supermarket stuff to get food from Wales.
Why do we tolerate this? Every penny we spend on food from Wales benefits our own farmers and food producers. It boosts our nation.
Yet we seem to whisper about our food rather than trumpet it.
Have you ever been in a bed and breakfast or hotel in Wales only to get served a full “English” of Danish bacon, Irish mushrooms, Dutch tomatoes and perhaps a Welsh egg (we produce twice as many free range eggs per capita than England, and it’s a big growth area).
Well if you think today’s experiences of food in Wales is a bit of a sorry state, just wait until the Brexit manure flies off the muck spreader.
To date the main route to move Welsh food up the quality chain and improve exports and prices has been the designation of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
Hybu Cig Cymru estimates that 25% of the growth in Welsh lamb exports between 2003 and 2012 can be directly attributed to its PGI status.
So, the status of PGI is of enormous economic importance to the Welsh red meat industry, but increasingly in other sectors as well. We now have 14 PGI products in Wales.
Astonishingly however, as we leave the EU, there is no guarantee either of the continuation of PGI status for Welsh food or even that Welsh food will even be branded as Welsh.
Yes, that’s right, DEFRA (who have yet to concede the land grab on devolution in the EU Withdrawal Bill) are considering whether to slap a Union Jack on all food from the UK and whether even to allow Welsh food to be branded and labelled as Welsh.
It is important that Welsh food is recognised as Welsh food as we exit the European Union, rather than it being draped in the Union Jack or marked as from some vague geographical Britain.
This is vital for our nation’s self-confidence and economy. Food and drink companies turn over nearly £7 billion a year and exports increased nearly 13% in the first six months of 2016—an increase of £15.2 million alone.
Now is the time that we should be upping our game on branding food from Wales as Welsh, with a clear story to tell about our excellent quality, the source of food, animal welfare and environmental standards.
The first political slogan I remember shouting around the schoolyard was “Margaret Thatcher, milk snatcher”, and yet at the moment we can’t even guarantee that schoolchildren will continue to receive Welsh milk.
The EU helps fund the school milk available in primary schools currently but no funding is in place to allow this to continue.
I am clear that milk in schools is a good way of getting children familiar with the best of Welsh produce, and it’s healthy and nutritious too.
I am not convinced Welsh Government is taking this threat to Welsh branding seriously enough. It axed our own food awards in 2013.
“Gwir Flas” had an enviable marketing edge and told the story of the quality of our food. We need to bring back our own food awards, not rely on “Welsh winners” in a UK “Great Taste” competition.
Awards raise status and increase ambition within the sector. A Plaid Cymru Welsh Government would have also designated 2018 as a National Year of Welsh Food and Drink.
The aim was to promote Wales’ quality produce in a sustained and intensive year-long campaign to encourage customers in the UK and overseas to buy more Welsh products.
The fight for the right to brand food from Wales as Welsh starts here. We don’t want Welsh food marketed and branded as “food from the UK”.
We can work together on these islands for the highest quality food, but the story we tell when we sell must have a distinct Welsh flavour.