The Nutrition and Health Foundation, launched yesterday, will carry out research on Irish consumers to identify gaps in their knowledge about healthy diets and ways in which their understanding of nutritional labeling can be increased.
"There are a number of gaps in attitudinal research," Louise Sullivan, manager of the foundation, told NutraIngredients.com.
"Often the government and media goes by research carried out in the UK and US but that's not good enough. We want to do our own."
More than 20 firms, including many subsidiaries of international companies like Unilever, Kellogg, Masterfoods and Nestlé but also Irish groups IAWS, Dawn Farm Foods and Greencore Sugar, have contributed €1 million to the project for the first three years, with more expected to join.
While the Irish food industry is not under the same government and media scrutiny as that seen in the UK, much of the British media is widely reported in Ireland and does influence consumer trends.
The country is also experiencing similar levels of rising obesity rates. An IUNA Food Consumption Survey report in 2001 found that 46 per cent of Irish adult males and 33 per cent of Irish adult females were overweight, while 20 per cent of men and 16 per cent of women were obese.
But the industry will be hoping that its new project means Ireland will not need to follow 'traffic light' labelling and other methods to alert consumers to healthy foods, being introduced by a number of supermarkets in the UK.
"There is a lot of criticism in the media that the food industry is being subversive but the information is on the pack. If only people could understand the nutrition labels there wouldn't be a need for traffic light labeling," said Sullivan, adding that evidence shows that many people do not understand how to use the nutritional panel included on product labels.
The foundation plans to look at ways of educating consumers about how to break down this information and calculate the nutrition data, often given per 100g of product.
Sullivan said while it would not "pre-empt labeling changes under discussion by European authorities", other member states are looking at the scheme as a useful pilot for their own industries.
The Irish agri-food and drink sector accounts for more than 8.9 per cent of Ireland's GDP and 9 per cent of total employment, and the country is the fourth largest food exporting nation in the European Union.
Functional foods are already being seen as a significant area of potential growth for the sector. Although such products currently generate sales of approximately €100 million, they have been slated to generate more than €250 million in the next five years under a National Functional Foods Forum launched by a government-funded body last month.
In contrast, the new nutrition and health foundation, to be run by the food division of the Irish Business and Employers Conferation (IBEC), has not received government funding, although it may seek grants for research in the future.
Studies will be coordinated by the Irish Universities Nutrition Alliance (IUNA), the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute (INDI) and the Exercise and Sports Science Association of Ireland (ESSAI).
The foundation also aims to expand its supporter base to the leisure and technology industry.
"Ireland is a small enough country for a partnership approach to work," added Sullivan.
"The industry is being proactive and working with the government in a more constructive way than in the UK by taking this initiative."
The project is similar in structure and goal to a proposed 'European multi-stakeholder platform', currently being developed by the EU Commissions Health and Consumer Protection division.