Quinlan’s Fish of Caherciveen, Co Kerry, has just won the supreme champion award at this year’s Blas na hÉireann in neighbouring Dingle. The best artisan award went to Bainne Codhladh of Kanturk, Co Cork, for its Lullaby milk, milked at night and marketed as helpful to babies with troubled sleep because of its high melatonin content.

Six other high-quality food producers and processors received prizes in specialist categories, while Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney was named producers’ champion 2015 “in recognition of his efforts to promote Irish food producers and their products at home and abroad”.

Blas na hÉireann is the largest of the many food and drink accolade ceremonies held each year around the country, but with so many food industry awards, how coveted are they and what does winning an award actually mean for primary producers?

Daunting list

A simple Google search for “Irish food awards” would daunt the biggest of foodies out there. The list is long and includes the Irish Quality Food Awards, the Food Writers Guild awards, the Bord Bia Food and Drinks Awards, the Love Irish Food Awards and the SuperValu Irish Food Producer of the Year.

It now seems there are more awards than food products and sometimes the equivalent of the entire stock lines carried in an Aldi or Lidl will enter. Battling for an award in categories from quiche to flavoured rapeseed oils, awards like these are becoming a key performance indicator for success in the industry.

3,000 entries

The appetite among food producers to have a food award logo on their packaging has become an obsession. In fact, it has almost reached obesity levels. For example, at this weekend’s Blas na hEireann awards, almost 3,000 Irish food and drink products were entered into 90 categories. With three winners in each category, on average there was a 10% chance of winning. It would seem that even the weakest of food producers are in with a pretty good chance to ‘win’.

Similarly, if we look at the UK, Great Taste, organised by the Guild of Fine Food, is the acknowledged benchmark award for fine food and drink. It has been described as the Oscars of the food world and the epicurean equivalent of the Booker prize.

Over 10,000 products were entered this year, with only 130 foods achieving the highest and most coveted rating, three stars. However, 597 foods grabbed two stars and 2,382 were awarded one star. That means almost 31% of entries were accredited – not bad odds.

Sticking labels

Winning is obviously important to producers, as it differentiates their product on the crowded supermarket shelves. Stick a ‘winner of’ on the label and I’m sure supermarkets start to listen and sales go on an upward trajectory.

Winning means that the customer should have a guarantee that the products have a reliable seal of approval based upon great taste and not great marketing. Simply put, having an award should be a sign a consumer can trust when buying food and drink in a retailer.

However, a recent survey from Love Irish Food, the body set up to encourage people to buy Irish-produced food and drink, found that Irish shoppers are not only confused, but are demanding greater clarity on labeling. After choosing a brand, navigating provenance labeling, sustainability logos and quality marks, the ‘winner of’ starts to clearly differentiate and make sense.

There is no doubt Ireland must celebrate local produce and the people behind it. And these awards go one step towards this. After all, they are the entrepreneurs who took the risk and who are deeply passionate about what they do.

Awards bigger than ingredients

But as an industry, we must not let the awards become bigger than the ingredients themselves. We must question how these awards are helping the primary producer. Consumers would like to think that all winners are genuine food people who care about the quality of food and drink they produce.

Are these awards simply to differentiate food brands on supermarket shelves or are they to promote the best use of sustainable Irish produce from Irish farms? Looking down the long list of this year’s winners of the coveted food awards, it is unlikely that the sundried tomato and chilli pesto come from a farm down in Wexford.