Antibiotic use on Irish farms

Fresh concerns over use of antibiotics in farming

Horse meat is no joke. But at least it is not killing us. More than 25,000 people across Europe die each year because of bacterial infections that are impossible to treat.  ELLA MCSWEENEY

As doctors prescribe ever more antibiotics to cure our ills, the bacteria which cause these infections respond by mutating, resisting and multiplying. Antibiotic resistance is a real killer.
We know that the same classes of antibiotics used to treat humans are given – sometimes liberally – to animals. Last month, a report from the Food and Drink Administration in the US revealed that the meat industry accounts for nearly four-fifths of all antibiotics used.
As with humans, antibiotics can be vital to animal health. The painful udder infection in cows, known as mastitis, is caused by bacteria such as Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Antibiotics aren’t only prescribed when the cow is showing clinical signs. During her “dry” period, it is routine on most Irish dairy farms to give the cow preventative antibiotics.
Is this always necessary? The mantra of Animal Health Ireland is that prevention is better than cure, and there are other ways than antibiotics to stop bacterial infection.
Disinfecting the cow’s teats after milking can prevent new mastitis infections by 50 per cent, according to Teagasc researcher Dr Finola McCoy. “Farmers need to take an extra few minutes to really clean the teats,” she says, “but time can be pressured as herds get bigger.”
Infecting chickens 
Irish farmers are increasingly using preventative techniques. Sales of vaccines have trebled in the last decade. Dr Donal Lynch, a vet who primarily works with cattle, believes that farmers have moved away from a reliance on antibiotics.
“Vaccination has increased,” he says. “We use less antibiotics now because of herd health programmes and better farm management”.
Feeding newborn calves the first milk from their mother is a simple preventative measure that occurs on most Irish farms. This “colostrum” is packed full of anti- bodies that protect the calf against disease.
The danger for humans is not just the overuse of antibiotics with the consequent mutation of bacteria and their resistance to available medication. It is also the threat posed by the crossover from animal to human of infections and the bacteria required to treat them.
Bacteria are not always fussy about where to settle down and multiply; the gut of a human, a pig or a cow will do nicely. And from there they can bounce in their trillions, back and forth from humans to animals, building up resistance along the way.
This isn’t a new story. In the 1970s, broiler chickens began to suffer from lameness due to a bone infection caused by a strain of the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh discovered that the bacterium, known as ST5, had jumped across the species barrier from humans in Poland, and from there it flew around the world infecting broiler chicken flocks and acquiring a resistance to a range of antibiotics.
A little closer to home is the story of MRSA ST398 (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus CC398). Scientists first spotted this strain nine years ago in the Netherlands. A sickly child was taken to hospital by her parents, who were pig farmers. When scientists tested the pigs, they found the same strain of Staph. aureus as was identified in the child. “Pig MRSA” was born.
Last year, US scientists discovered that when this strain first jumped from humans to pigs, it acquired resistance “as a result of farm antibiotic exposure”. In the Netherlands, ST398 accounts for just under 40 per cent of human MRSA cases. It can cause fatal infections in humans, including damage to the heart and blood infections.
To the alarm of the UK dairy industry, last year scientists discovered MRSA ST398 in milk. In October, it was discovered that a retired part-time cattle farmer in the west of Ireland had been infected with the same MRSA ST398.
Beef output 
Ireland’s Health Protection Surveillance Centre reported that “it is impossible to completely rule out a link between the patient and animal sources” and that if further cases of this strain of MRSA are identified in humans, then screening for admission to hospital will include those who have had contact with livestock.
MRSA ST398 is resistant to an antibiotic called tetracycline. According to an Irish Medicine Board report in 2010, tetracyclines accounted for 36 per cent of all antibiotics sold in Ireland for veterinary use that year.
Is the discovery of MRSA ST398 in British milk a warning for Irish dairy farmers? Irish dairy and beef farms are expanding. The Department of Agriculture’s Food Harvest targets specify an increase in milk output by 50 per cent and beef output by 40 per cent by 2020. Positive stuff, but this will come with its own pressures.
“If we start intensifying our food production, we need to do this in a sustainable way,” says Prof Séamus Fanning, food safety expert in UCD. “We must withdraw our dependence on antibiotics in farming and keep the drugs for other things.”
Dr Mark Holmes, who led the UK team which discovered MRSA ST398 in milk, says the downward price pressures put on farmers by major retailers can increase antibiotic usage.
“If farmers were not screwed into the ground by the supermarkets and allowed to get a fair price for their milk,” he said in 2012, “they would be able to use fewer antibiotics.”
The use of antibiotics on farms is of concern across Europe. Antibiotics as growth promoters – still allowed in the US – has been banned in Europe since 2006. In 2011, the European Commission published a five-year plan to reduce resistance. Half of the proposed actions address the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Some believe that with the emerging horse meat scandal, the opportunity for Europe in general – and Ireland in particular – to establish a global reputation for high-quality standards in food production, is significant .
“Our best defence is the water that surrounds us,” says Fanning. “If we’re going to preserve our status as a food island, then we need to up our game. We have a unique opportunity to have proper surveillance across all aspects of our food chain, and we should take it.”
In 2011, a new type of MRSA was discovered in two patients in Irish hospitals. This new strain belongs to a genetic lineage that was previously associated only with cows and other animals, but not humans.
That same year, UK scientists identified MRSA in cows with a near-identical profile to that of the Irish human MRSA. It’s clear that new strains of MRSA that can colonise humans are emerging from animal reservoirs in Ireland and Europe.
Public health challenge 
So what do we know about the use of antibiotics on Irish farms? “That’s a good question,” says Fanning. “I wish I had an answer for you.”
The worrying fact is that we don’t know much. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine does not collect data on antibiotic usage on Irish farms. Available data from the global market research specialist, GFK Kynetec, shows that antibiotic sales for large animals in Ireland is increasing.
The World Health Organisation wants to ring-fence three classes of antibiotics they rate as “critically important to human medicine’” – cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones and macrolides. Their concern is that worldwide, the use of these antibiotics on farms has increased eightfold in the last decade. In 2010, these classes of antibiotics represented 12 per cent of the total antibiotic use on Irish farms, according to the Irish Medicines Board, a 50 per cent increase on 2009 levels.
According to Dr Marc Sprenger, director of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, antibiotic resistance is “one of the most serious public health challenges we face”. Because we share antibiotics and dangerous bacteria with farm animals, is it time for the Irish authorities to follow the lead of countries such as like Denmark, where this information has been collected for years?
“Increased surveillance of antibiotic use is critical,” says Fanning. “We need to make sure that data from human consumption of antibiotics is available alongside data from antibiotic use on farms in Ireland. These drugs are the most important that we have for protecting us from infections.”
And if we don’t do this? “Then we will will have no drugs available for future generations.”

Unpasteurised Milk: A Raw Issue

[published in Irish Examiner, June 23rd 2011; listen to interview on RTE Radio 1 here]

Irish people love drinking milk: a recent study of milk consumption ranked Ireland third highest in the world. But just as consumers realise the benefits of drinking raw, unpasteurised milk, a new piece of legislation plans to ban Irish farmers from selling it to the public. 
It’s been two years since Kildare farmer Aidan Harney sold his first bottle of unpasteurised, or raw, cow’s milk.  As the owner of a 45-strong dairy herd, Aidan spent years selling his milk to a major organic processor for little more than cost price. It left him demotivated, and things were hanging on a knife edge. “We were going was either expand, diversify or sell up. We decided to diversify by going into direct sales.” Today, Aidan sells 400 litres of raw milk a week. 
Aidan is one of a handful of Irish dairy farmers who sell raw milk to the public, protected by 2006 EU hygiene legislation which legally permits it.  According to Aidan, who sells his raw milk for Euro 1.90 a litre, consumers can’t get enough. “We’ve seen a huge demand for it from people around here, just huge. The type of people who buy the raw milk are aware of the food they’re eating and they go out of their way to seek fresh, raw food”, he says.  What are the reasons they give for buying it raw? “They either drank raw milk when they were younger, or they want to move away from highly processed foods”, he says. “There are also those with dietary issues, like lactose intolerance, who can only drink untreated raw milk. They’re coming looking for it and everyone is happy.”
Aidan will soon be breaking the law. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (DAFF) has drafted new legislation to prohibit farmers from selling raw milk from all animals species - including goats, cows and sheep - for direct human consumption. According to a DAFF spokesperson, this legislation is at an “advanced stage”, and it is motivated by the “necessity to safeguard public health”.  The number of people affected by this impending ban is not known, and  DAFF will not make available a list of farmers who sell raw milk in Ireland today.  The last survey of raw milk consumption looked at dairy farmers from eight counties in Ireland; 84% of them drank raw milk. 
DAFF first banned the sale of raw milk in 1996, prompted by food safety experts who expressed concerns over pathogens found in it. When EU legislation permitted the sale of it a decade later, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), the state body responsible for Irish food safety legislation, argued vociferously against the human consumption of raw animal milk.  They published information leaflets stating that raw milk can contain potentially fatal pathogens such as E. coli 0157:H7, campylobacter, tuberculosis, salmonellosis and brucellosis. They strongly recommend pasteurisation and warn that anyone drinking raw milk places themselves at “an unnecessary risk of serious illness”. FSAI’s chief executive, Professor Alan Reilly, who believes a ban should be implemented immediately, has said that “perfectly healthy animals contain human pathogens...we cannot assure, with the best farming practices available, that faecal contamination of the milk will not happen. The risk posed by it is such that it merits prohibition.” 
It’s the process of pasteurisation - heating milk to 71 degrees Celsius for 15 seconds - that kills harmful organisms, and raw milk advocates argue that in doing so, essential vitamins and nutrients are destroyed.  Many scientific experts would agree that this process also kills some beneficial components; indeed, a 2008 Safefood report on the milk chain in Ireland noted that raw milk is a source of Vitamin C and B (thiamin) but “due to the heat applied during pasteurisation”, there are “substantial losses” of these vitamins. 
Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School has long advocated the health benefits of drinking milk that is not pasteurised.  “There is much research to show that drinking raw milk helps the immune system and is preventative against the likes of asthma and eczema.” Her sentiments are echoed by the influential Weston A. Price Foundation, a US non-profit lobby group. They claim that pasteurisation ‘greatly’ reduces the effectiveness of immune-enhancing elements present in raw milk, while recent peer-reviewed scientific studies would support the claim that raw milk enhances the immune system.
But some scientists say the risks are too great.  They point to the recent E. coli outbreak in Germany (the source of which was vegetable sprouts) to illustrate the fatal dangers to humans from eating food infected with E. coli, along with the discovery of a new strain of the drug-resistant MRSA superbug that was recently found in cow’s milk and people in Britain and Denmark. 
Professor Martin Cormican, a consultant bacteriologist at NUI Galway, is vehement about the dangers associated with drinking raw milk: “I have no doubt that drinking raw milk represents an easily avoidable risk of infection". Despite huge improvements in herd health since the 1950s in Ireland, Professor Cormican claims that raw milk from Irish dairy farms can be pathogenic, saying "healthy herds of cows may have in their faeces bacteria that are dangerous for us. You cannot get milk out of a cow without getting faeces. Raw milk contains E. coli, and drinking raw milk means drinking diluted cow faeces, with all the associated risks.”  Although he drank raw milk as a child (“I remember my father squirting it from the cow’s teat into a cup and giving it to me”) he says that he would never have given it to his own children. “I would not have dreamt of giving it to my kids when they were small. I’m not a hygiene nut, but I wouldn’t have given the kids raw milk for love nor money. The risk is unacceptable and it outweighs any evidence of health benefits from drinking unpasteurised milk”. 
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Foods has refused to release detailed information about the proposed ban. A Freedom of Information request on the new legislation was refused. However it is clear is that civil servants from DAFF and FSAI have been working on legislation for over four years; numerous internal emails between their staff on “the proposal to ban the sale of raw milk” were exchanged from May 2007 onwards. What is surprising is that DAFF decided not to undertake a public consultation on the proposed ban on the sale of cow’s milk. They did, however, undertake a public consultation in 2008 on the inclusion of goats and sheep milk in the proposed legislation. A spokesperson for DAFF confirmed that 17 submissions were received, but none provided evidence “that would alter the advice previously given that the ban should be supported in legislation because of serious public health concerns”.  A Freedom of Information request to see details of this public consultation was also refused.
So is an outright ban the only solution?  No, says Evan Doyle, proprietor of Brook Lodge Hotel in Wicklow. He suggests a ‘third way’ that balances freedom of choice with the protection of public health. It is modeled on the situation in England where raw milk sales are legal, but heavily regulated. Strict controls are in place to protect consumers; for example, registered holdings are frequently inspected, herds are regularly tested, and cigarette-style health warnings are mandatory on all labels.
“Let’s be clear: not every farmer should be allowed to sell raw milk”, says Evan. “We should monitor it, control it and regulate it. There are raw milk cheese producers across Ireland who are under strict control. These are the guys who should be selling raw milk to the general public - the ones that are monitored carefully.  I think at the end of the day, as long as correct monitoring is in place, and the correct information is given to the consumer, then they should be allowed to make their own minds up about drinking raw milk. It should not be banned”.  Indeed, the scientific committee of the FSAI hinted at this solution in their 2008 report on food safety and tuberculosis. They suggested that raw milk for consumption or further processing should come from registered herds that are subject to extra inspections and a 6 monthly tuberculosis testing regime; this, they concluded, would “address public health concerns in terms of food safety”.  
Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness, who grew up on a dairy farm and drank raw milk as a child, has some sympathy for Evan Doyle’s suggestion that a ban is not the way forward; according to McGuinnes “a blanket ban does not give people an informed choice”. But she agrees with what DAFF is proposing. “If I were the Minister and I wanted to be absolutely clear? Then a ban is the safest way”, she said. “The advice from food safety experts informs politics, and their advice is to pasteurise. If we are concerned about public health, then you follow the expert advice given”.  
While DAFF's position on the sale of raw milk in liquid form is unambiguous, their view of raw milk cheese is less clear. Eighteen cheese producers in Ireland use raw milk; none of them heats it to the minimum temperature needed to kill pathogens such as listeria, salmonella and E.coli which, according to Professor Cormican, is heating milk to 63 degrees Celsius "for a long time". Why does DAFF not include raw milk cheese in the new legislation?  They insist that "the purpose of the ban is to protect public health by ensuring that all drinking milk for sale is pasteurised". 
Even more confusing is DAFF’s confirmation that the sale of raw milk butter, the process of which involves no heat whatever, will not be part of the new legislative package. DAFF argue that the addition of salt (“a preservative”) and the “control of moisture content of butter” both confer a “safety element in the manufacturing” of it. This seems to go against food safety experts’ advice that the only way to kill pathogens in raw milk is to pasteurise. Moreover, there is no stipulation that raw milk butter manufacturers are prohibited from making unsalted butter. For Kildare farmer Aidan Harney, who makes butter from his raw cow's milk, the exemption of raw milk butter from the legislation is a relief. “The raw milk butter is the biggest seller”, he said. “After the ban comes in we will continue to sell the butter - people love it”. 
One Irish dairy farmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, believes the proposed ban is the wrong thing for DAFF to do.  “I sell my raw milk direct to the general public - the demand is there and it’s growing every day. The general public love it. The proposed ban is just non-sensical. It’s just another thing that the farmer is not trusted to do properly anymore. How long do the regulators want the food chain to be? It’s crazy.” For this farmer, who sells most of his milk to a large processor, raw milk is the antithesis of commercial farming because the consumer needs to have a direct relationship with the farmer.  “The raw milk must come from a farmer you know and trust. It’s local, direct and about trust. If the herd is monitored and disease-free, then it’s a personal choice and as a democratic country, we should be free to make this choice ourselves. It should not be something that we are banned from doing.”  
Darina Allen thinks we should be “confident” about Irish milk, which is a top quality grass-fed product that is exported internationally. She emphatically believes that supporting an independent Irish dairy market would be of benefit to the agri-food sector.  “As a country that exports our milk all over the world, surely we need to be able to say we think it good enough to drink raw ourselves?”.   Raw milk sales remain legal in France, Germany, England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Denmark and Sweden. Would prohibition stop the sale of raw milk in Ireland? “Banning raw milk will just make it a contraband product, and this is not a good thing for anyone. I am arguing for people to have a choice to make their own decisions. It should be labelled - it can contain pathogens and needs a warning. But why not let people make their own choice?”
Professor Cormican understands this view, but he is adamant that a ban is best for society at large. “It is a difficult issue balancing risk and balancing rights”, he says. “I understand this point of view but you could make the same libertarian argument in favour of allowing people to let their children travel without wearing a seat belt - in a society where we all share responsibility for looking after those who suffer accident or illness, I think it’s reasonable to say that we can also agree that people must take some steps to protect themselves”. 
Meanwhile, Kildare farmer Aidan Harney will continue to sell glass bottles of ‘Ballymore Farm Raw Milk’, resigned to the fact that the ban will be implemented.  “The proposed ban is a step backwards for Ireland. Our politicians didn’t consult us, they didn’t ask the people if they wanted this or not, they just said it’s going to be banned whether we like it or not, and that’s that. It’s not a good way for this to happen.”

What's in Your Cuppa?

Last year, the UK's influential Ecologist magazine commissioned investigative journalists to explore the human, environmental and animal welfare costs of tea, sugar and milk production. In April they published these stories in a report called "What's Really in Your Cuppa?: a special investigation into the hidden costs of tea, milk and sugar".

Investigations into the global tea sector featured heavily. Verity Largo (a pseudonym) travelled to Kenya's Kericho tea plantation, which is owned by Unilever (the parent company of Irish tea brand Lyons, as reported in the Irish Times a few days ago). Largo spoke to female employees at this Rainforest Alliance-certified plantation, and writes about their allegations of serious sexual harassment by supervisors at the plant; these claims are supported by research undertaken by the Dutch organisation SOMO. You can read Largo's remarkable investigation here. (The Rainforest Alliance's response to Largo's investigation is here.) 

William McLennan investigated the human rights abuses and environmental damages associated with the global tea sector, writing that "human rights violations have been reported at plantations in virtually all major tea producing countries, while plantations themselves have a profound affect on the environment". If you're not mid-sup, read it here. There is also a War on Want film that explores the 'hidden costs of tea'. 

Sam Campbell travelled to Cambodia to investigate their sugar industry, which has been rejuvenated by EU tax breaks. What should be a success story is soured by reports that farmers have been forced off their lands to make way for sugar plantations which are controlled by local and foreign-owned businesses. Campbell's report is here

Tom Levitt's article on the environmental and animal welfare issues associated with the UK's dairy sector is relevant to us in Ireland, given the expansion that will take place in 2015 with the abolition of milk quotas. An undercover investigation into California's mega-dairies by Jim Wickens reveals farms with "enormous open-air sheds, mountains of feed, million-gallon pools of slurry and thousands of listless cows". 

There's lots more, so go on, stick the kettle on and read

Irish food writing

Last week's History Show, presented by Myles Dungan on RTE Radio 1, focused on recipes and food stories and how they have been recorded over time. Penguin recently published 20 small paperbacks to celebrate 400 years of food writing and Myles spoke with Catherine Cleary (Irish Times food writer) about two of these books: Murder in the Kitchen by Alic B Toklas, and The Chef by Alexis Soyer. (Listen to the full programme here.)

As part of the show, I explored the (short) history of Irish food writing with Darina Allen from Ballymaloe Cookery School, and University College Cork food historian Regina Sexton. Included in the report is audio from RTE's archive. 


The Beaver Man

A short 10 minute documentary about Charley, one of the last professional beaver trappers in Nova Scotia.  

RTE's Rural Week: "Heart|Land"

Over the past number of years, RTE (Ireland's national broadcaster) has strongly supported farming and food programmes. Until recently, farm news was a daily part of their main evening radio news programme, Ear to the Ground has been on RTE 1 television for over two decades and a plethora of food programmes have featured in their radio and television schedules. RTE Radio 1 has a weekly farming show, Countrywide with Damien O'Reilly (previously called Farm Week), has been on air for many years.

So it's little surprise that they've dedicated a week's programming to celebrate rural life in Ireland. The week is dubbed "Heart|Land" and RTE has commissioned radio and television programmes that reflect rural life in the 21st Century.  RTE's aim is to "rejoice in the land and the landscape of Ireland...In all the glamour and blare of the Celtic Tiger, we might have forgotten that our deep relationship with the land and landscape of Ireland continues into the 21st century... The RTE season Heart|Land throws a light on that relationship".

The Heart|Land schedule, starting Sunday 8th May, looks fantastic; it's a satisfying balance of entertainment and issue-led programmes. I'm particularly looking forward to Sean Ó’Mordha's two part documentary on the history of the family farm. I've done some filming as part of my role on RTE TV's farming and food series Ear to the Ground, and I'll be reporting live for the Pat Kenny Show on RTE Radio 1

And don't forget, thanks to Brendan of Castlemine Farm in Roscommon, next week is also 'Eat Only Irish' week - something everyone can get involved in. More about that challenge here.

So here's what to expect:
RTE Television
The Home Place: a two-part documentary by acclaimed director Sean Ó’Mordha, The Home Place, explores the history of the Irish family farm. 
Nationwide will feature a young Kilkenny woman who is exporting honey from her country cottage to markets all over the world, meets the Cavan woman who works full time with the farm Relief Services as well as running her own farm and talks to a Roscommon farmer who has vowed to eat nothing other than Irish-produced food for the entire week. They also see how a determined Bantry woman is developing a state of the art driving academy on her land.
The Frontline: An examination of the position of rural Ireland in 2011, asking whether its economic needs are being met and whether it is realistic for Government to attempt to reverse the drift of population away from rural areas towards urban centres.
What’s Ireland Eating: journalist and consumer champion Philip Boucher Hayes delves into a number of Ireland’s most popular foodstuffs and reveals some unsavoury truths about where they came from and what they’re doing to our health. 
Ear to the Ground: presenters Darragh, Helen and Ella explore their own very different and personal relationships with the countryside.

RTE Radio
The Business will explore the new face of agriculture in Ireland – are we capitalising enough on our greatest natural resource?
The Documentary on One: ‘Olivia’s Farm’, we meet 35-year-old Olivia Hynes, a sheep farmer from Four Roads, County Roscommon, during her busiest time of year.  Despite the fact that Olivia has four brothers and three sisters, she was the one who chose to work on the family farm and the land was transferred into her name at the age of twenty-three.  The challenge for her is to maintain a viable, full-time farm. 
The Book on One this week is ‘Holy Land’ (Faber, 2007), Maurice Riordan's third collection of poems, read here by the author, is a sequence of dramatic idylls set in rural Cork in the 1950s.  The subdued microcosm of farm and smallholding is brought quietly to life through the voices of the poet's father, neighbours and assorted farmhands. Ray McAnally gives a towering and taurean performance as the Bull McCabe in the 1969 RTÉ production of The Field by John B. Keane also starring Eamon Keane and Niall Toibin. 

Countrywide goes to the very heart of the Heartland - Cavan is the location for one of our regular forays beyond the Pale.  It’s also the location for the All Ireland Fleadh later in the Summer, and that’s why Cavan music will star on the show. Also throughout the Heart|Land season, Drivetime will feature reports/feature on rural schools.

Each day on Lyric, In Tempo will play a piece of music which evokes our relationship with the land; Gerry Godley presents a Reels to Ragas special, a celebration of work song around the world and down the ages; on Grace Notes Ellen Cranitch will have eco-friendly fun with traditional and folk songs and tunes with rural connections; Rock, Sea and Sky will feature a vivid, celebratory sound-picture of Inis Mean and Dance to your Shadow is a celebration of mouth music.
On RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta’s Ardtráthnóna, Máirtín Tom Sheáinín looks back at the history of the Doire Néidh Fair in Connemara and the jobbers who used to come there to sell livestock, as well as the history of other fairs in the area.
Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin joins the RTÉ Concert Orchestra for an evening of his music at the National Concert Hall on Wednesday 11 May 8pm, including Oileán/Island with the great Matt Molloy.

The True Cost of Mother's Day Flowers

Another superb investigation by the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence, this time into Kenya's horticulture industry:

Inishfood Festival: Year 1

"It started off very small, just to get a few food bloggers together for dinner", explains food blogger Kirstin Jensen. "Next thing we just took off". And so Inishfood Festival in Donegal was born. The determination of three people (Kirstin, Caroline Hennessy and Donal Doherty) culminated in a 3 day festival that brought dozens of people from all over Ireland to the majestic peninsula of Inishowen.

Kirstin & Caroline formed the Irish Food Bloggers Association last year:


Donal Doherty runs Harry's, a restaurant on the main road from Derry to Inishowen. Donal talks a lot about "local food"; more helpfully, he talks about "Made in Inishowen" food, because it's from this peninsula that nearly 85% of the food on his menu is sourced. Contrast that with a decade ago when only 10% of Harry's menu was sourced locally, and you get an idea of the transformation that's taken place in his restaurant: 

Noel McLoughlin, who lives on the peninsula, gave up part-time farming a few years ago. "I got out of it because there was such a had no connection with the animals, or what happened to them... this farm to fork approach really appeals to me".  This 'farm to fork' approach has brought Noel back to farming; he now sells his Tamworth pigs direct to Donal for his restaurant.

Three of Ireland's top butchers were at Inishfood - Dublin's Ed Hick, Cork's Jack McCarthy and Tipperary's TJ Crowe. Jack is from Kanturk in northwest Cork; the Irish for this town, 'ceann toirc', translates as 'boar's head' and it was Jack's Boar's Head Kanturk Black Pudding that won gold at a major international pudding competition last year. He demonstrated his remarkable butchery skills at Inishfood: 


Ed Hick is from a famous family of pork butchers in Dublin. He's on the Taste Council of Ireland and is particularly keen on Irish food traditions "that your granny and great-granny used to do", such as using fresh blood to make black pudding and drinking raw milk. There's been a revived interest in these traditions in the past year, but it's still a minority of people who enthuse about them.

"There's a huge foundation of wonderful food here", says Sally McKenna, co-founder of the Bridgestone Guide with her husband John. John wrote that Harry's "is currently the most complete Wow! experience in Irish food". 
Imen McDonnell is an American TV producer who met a Limerick farmer in her home country a few years ago. With the promise of acreage and road frontage, he persuaded her to move to his family farm in Ireland where she now lives. Imen is positive, fresh and has a sense of food style that can be seen on her blog. During the Inishfood Festival, she gave a butter demonstration. 

Butter Live!

"Is that all there is to it?" asked one of the school children from St. Ailbe's School, Tipperary.  "Yes, that's it! You've just made butter" I replied, knowing well the feeling of surprise and satisfaction that comes after you churn fresh white cream into yellow butter for the first time.

And so it was for those of us who took part in last night's Butter Live! online event to celebrate GIY Ireland week. As an experiment in food broadcasting, it involved the viewers in exactly the way I had hoped: together, from around Ireland and abroad, we turned liquid cream into a block of delicious butter.

It was exciting to read articles about Butter Live! from other parts of the world. NPR wrote about it here, Seattle twitter @tablefare wrote about it here and Kristin Leyden, a farmer in Massachusetts wrote about it here.

You can watch Butter Live! below. Please go straight to 10 minutes in for the start. If you make butter, do share your photographs on twitter #butterlive or by email

My thanks to Imen McDonnell, Alan Kingston, Sarah Fleming and Brochan Cocoman (the dairy farmer who supplied the raw cream).  

[A radio feature on butter I did last year for RTE, which includes an interview with Imen and also Tom Butler of Cuinneog, a brand of butter from Mayo, can be heard here]

The Wild Job

"We are currently looking for a full-time Forager of Wild Foods to join our Kitchen Team at Macreddin Village", writes Evan Doyle, owner of the BrookLodge Hotel in Wicklow, in the job description for this quirky job in his restaurant.

What, exactly, is a "forager of wild foods"? Evan explains all to me...


1994 Donkey Derby

This video from 1994 is flying around twitter at the moment - the Castletown Donkey Derby in Limerick. 

Majestic Moilies

Christopher and Helen Kelly of Lough Bishop House in Westmeath keep a herd of rare breed Irish Moiled Cattle, or 'moilies' as they affectionately call them. It's a pedigree herd and as such, each animal is named.

You can stay with the Kellys at their B&B, but for those of you who keep up with farm activities through the web, they share their news on this blog. It's one of my favourites.

Below are a few of Christopher's photographs of his majestic moilies. 

You can listen to the piece I did on RTE's Countrywide show with the Kellys here.

Pig Business documentary

It took five years for the Marchioness of Worcester, eco-campaigner Tracy Worcester, to make her investigative documentary into the intensive pig farming industry. Channel 4 refused to broadcast the full film because of their fear of being sued by the world's largest pork producer and processor, Smithfield Foods; in 2009, they broadcast an edited version.  

For a screening in the UK, Tracy Worcester had to sign indemnity papers to take personal responsibility for the content. She has now put the full film up on youtube for everyone to watch.

The official website for the documentary is here