Michele Shirlow Chief Executive Food NI – Farm Week Column – 17 January 2019

There was a time when our food and drink companies were extremely reluctant to enter their products in national and international awards. Indeed, I recall Bob Farrand, the founder of the hugely successful UK Great Taste Awards, visiting Balmoral Show and confiding that the organisation found it challenging to fill the Northern Ireland regional winner category before 2012. I wonder if this reflected a lack of confidence within the industry over the quality, originality and, of course, taste of the products?

Times have changed…and changed dramatically. Almost 60 companies, for instance, won over 200 gold stars in this year’s Great Taste Awards. And six companies achieved coveted three gold stars – Burren Balsalmics, Richhill; Hannan Meats, Moira; Lacada Brewing, Portrush; Mauds Ice Cream, Carrickfergus, and Natural Umber, a recent start-up business from Dungannon, winner of the coveted regional Golden Fork. We’ve also won the Great Taste supreme title three times since 2012, the winners being McCartney’s Butchers and Hannan Meats, both based in Moira. Hannan, in fact, has won the title twice, the only company in the long history of the prestigious to achieve this.

Recently, Rooney Fish from Kilkeel became the first local company ever to win the Supreme Champion title at Blas na hEirehann with their Mill Bay Oysters. A double first as both the first Northern Irish company and the first ever to win with oysters!

There were other outstanding successes in competitions such as the UK and Irish Quality Food Awards, the Food Manufacture Excellence Awards, the British Charcuterie Awards, BBC Food and Farming, World Bread Awards, British Cheese Awards and British Sausage Awards.

And the achievements of two of leading personalities and Food NI members were recognised nationally, Peter Hannan winning the Derek Cooper Award in the BBC Food and Farming Awards and Denis Lynn gaining the IoD Award for Innovation.

We were delighted to host a reception, attended by many of our winners, at Clandeboye Estate along with Invest NI and with support from Lady Dufferin of Clandeboye and David Henderson of  Henderson Food Machinery, with original and delicious food prepared by Yellow Door, Portadown.

And it was a genuinely inspirational occasion to see so many winners in one location. There was a tremendous buzz in the room as the winners networked and discussed plans for future growth especially in Britain and the Republic, music in our ears!  It was clear that Northern Ireland really is a seedbed of creativity and innovation in all categories of food and drink.

Our standing in food and drink is now recognised globally as demonstrated by Northern Ireland being named as the World’s Best Food Destination in the World Travel and Tourism Awards in November.

Our companies have benchmarked their products and processes against competitors in Britain and the Republic and come out on top. They’ve discovered that they’ve nothing to fear from competing vigorously in these important markets.

What’s more, they are all determined to stay on top and to intensify their efforts to turn this into significant sales in both.  They can count on Food NI standing with them and developing business opportunities particularly in Britain, a pledge we made in our widely acclaimed Taste the Greatness strategic action plan.

We’ll continue to play our part with Invest NI in encouraging and supporting ambitious food and drink companies seeking sales abroad, business which will bring tangible benefits to the areas in which they are based especially in terms of employment opportunities. In the New Year, we will be capitalising on Best Food and drink Destination success with Tourism NI and Invest NI across the region.

In addition, we are developing an exciting programme – assisted by Invest NI – for ambitious companies in Britain.

We set ourselves a target in Taste the Greatness to achieve standout status in Britain by 2020 and to develop international credibility by 2023. Thanks to the ambition, commitment to excellence and achievements of our companies we are ahead of key targets.