Over the weekend I was thinking to myself if there is anywhere you need to self isolate, and still have access to great food and drink, then surely it must be Northern Ireland. We have an amazing range of food and drink producers, from the large scale producers who supply GB and beyond, right down to the small cider, beer and spirit producers. That’s why l really cannot understand why people here are continuing to panic buy a range of goods from toilet rolls to UHT milk.There’s really no need for it. Talking to local supermarket bosses, I gather people are even lining up early in the morning to strip goods before the staff have time to put these on the shelves. It is encouraging to see some retailers set aside time for vital healthcare staff working long hours, as well as vulnerable people.
Grocery retailers have highly sophisticated and robust planning systems that balance demand and supply. I’ve heardthat sales of pasta, canned meat and tinned soups spiked by 60 percent in the first week of March with the Prime Minister estimating that £1Billion additional food and drink is stockpiled.
We have an abundance of good food and drink readily available from local suppliers including our farms and processors and I’d urge shoppers here to buy local wherever possible. You can count on the provenance and complete traceability of food that’s grown here, not flown here.
We have a tremendous variety of fresh and packaged food readily available from hygiene-conscious producers. And we have an abundance of premium meat, fish and seafood, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, ready meals, snacks, sides and confectionery from local producers. Why stockpile UHT milk when there’s plenty of fresh and nutritious milk from our farms and dairy companies?
Buying local will help ensure the future of our farmers and processors and thereby secure employment across Northern Ireland. Many of our artisan and smaller producers, as I mentioned last week, are now facing severe cash problems,especially since prudent decisions by local councils have led to the suspension of most outdoor food markets. Many of these self- employed businesses may not qualify for financial support from the Northern Ireland Executive.
More needs to be done to help self-employed artisans over short-term cash flow and in the months ahead. These companies are the true innovators of the food and drink industry and a great source of delicious and original food and drink. It would be terrible to see some award winning entrepreneurs, being blown away in the current crisis. Other European countries, most notably Ireland, are helping the self-employed to survive.
I’d also ask the supermarkets and other smaller food retailershere to offer our artisan and smaller food and drink companies opportunities to reach their shoppers. This would help to get over the problem of a lack of awareness among many shoppers of exactly what is local. Perhaps they could provide safe mini market opportunities on-site. Our delis and independent grocers are already doing whatever they can.
I was also encouraged by the decision by ASDA to promise to pay smaller suppliers as quickly as possible. I hope other supermarkets follow ASDA’s lead.
It’s not all gloom and doom. I’ve been heartened by the offers of employment by food processors here for hospitality and other workers made redundant due to COVID-19. They include a number of Food NI members including Finnebroguein Downpatrick, Irwin’s Bakery, Craigavon, Linden Foods in Dungannon, Mash Direct in Comber and Moy Park, also headquartered in Craigavon. Also groups of chefs are coming together to cook for those in need.
We need to stand together to safeguard our people, especially the vulnerable, and do whatever we can to aid the local economy and employment. Stay safe.