Exclusive interview: Simon Coveney, Irish Food & Agriculture Minister

Irish government sticks to milk mining guns as prices plunge

By Shane STARLING contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Milk

Simon Coveney (2nd left): “We are going to have a lot more people and a lot more people choosing protein-based diets.”
Simon Coveney (2nd left): “We are going to have a lot more people and a lot more people choosing protein-based diets.”
Seven years ago the Irish government backed a collaborative industry-academic milk mining project to add value to the country’s dairy sector. Some have questioned why commercially usable research results have not been more forthcoming but here the Irish food minister Simon Coveney tells us why Food for Health Ireland (FHI) retains the full backing of the Irish government.

“Undoubtedly the dairy markets are going to be a lot more demanding,” ​Coveney said of the project that involves the likes of Teagasc, Enterprise Ireland, University College Dublin (UCD) and the four big Irish dairy players: Kerry, Glanbia, Dairygold and Carbery as well as Ornua, the Irish dairy board.

We are going to have a lot more people and a lot more people choosing protein-based diets.”

“We’d like to be a part of it…”

In this macro-environment, coupled with a food industry where all stakeholders are moving toward better nutrition (at varying rates), and with global milk prices recessed (prices down from $0.40 to around $0.25 per litre wholesale), the Minister for Agriculture, Food, the Marine & Defence, to give him his full title, sees projects like FHI as an added-value no-brainer.

“What we tried to do with FHI was to create a partnership between academia, research and commercial private sector companies,” ​Coveney said. “So if you look at a company like PepsiCo for instance – they are fascinated by the FHI project. So there are companies from the outside in saying that’s a really interesting project, we’d like to be part of it.”

The project has several ongoing research initiatives involving milk hydrolysates and whey and other milk components in areas like sports nutrition, infant nutrition and weight management being conducted at places like UCD and Teagasc Moore Park near Cork and the University College Cork.

“For us we are trying to link our universities and our research centres with private sector application and pressure to deliver something that has a market-based outcome,” ​Coveney said.

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“If you look at what is happening in powders a much higher percentage of Irish dairy product is now going into infant formula, into sports nutrition, into muscle-building products, whey and casein and the pursuit of added-value through nutrition has been a real success story for the Irish dairy industry.”

“Companies like Glanbia, Kerry and Carbery have made acquisitions and grown their footprint significantly as a result. So that pursuit of added value through nutrition and future food design has been great. FHI seeks to continue that momentum.”

The minister added: “FHI needs to keep proving its worth and if it doesn’t stay ahead in terms of effective research programmes, well there is a lot of competition for money in research areas so there is quite a lot of pressure on FHI.

"But it is continuing to attract a lot of private sector money and I think that is a pretty good indication because most of the companies don’t suffer fools so if they weren’t getting something back from FHI they wouldn’t continue to put money in.”

“The big message here is that the approach toward the food industry in Ireland really has transformed in the last 10 years from being one of volume production, of safe good quality product to now being one of significant added-value through science and innovation.”

He said this culture shift had resulted in foreign investment with all the 'big four' infant formula firms - Mead Johnson, Nestle-Wyeth, Danone-Nutricia and Abbott Laboratories - all investing in Ireland directly or via partnership in the case of Mead, and the nation accounting for something like 13-14% of global infant formula production.

Other FHI partners are the National University of Ireland Maynooth (NUIM); the National University of Ireland Galway (NUIG); Dublin City University (DCU) and University Limerick (UL).

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