Michele Shirlow – Farm Week Column 12th July 2018

I had an opportunity recently to visit the Royal Highland Show, near Edinburgh, as part of my focus on keeping abreast of trends in food and drink in other parts of Britain.  I’ve always loved the show and have fond memories of working there on the John Deere stand when I was a student at Edinburgh University. About ten years ago I visited the show and was inspired by the excellent food hall. I left determined to replicate that idea for Northern Ireland.

It’s always good to know what is happening elsewhere, particularly in measures to promote growth in food and drink processing and in developing sectors such as ‘free from’ products. Such knowledge enables us to assist our own members, especially the value added producers which are immensely important here, in key areas such as promotion and business development.

While the show is listed as by far the biggest and most important in the agri-food calendar in Scotland and among the most influential in the United Kingdom, the extent of the produce on display was not as extensive as at our own RUAS show at Balmoral Park.  Evidence indeed of how much the Northern Irish Food and Drink industry in Northern Ireland has evolved over the last ten years.

It really hit home to me that Balmoral food pavilion is now a superb showcase of award winning producers and our industry, which merits even greater recognition, both here and particularly outside Northern Ireland. It’s surely the very best showcase of regional food and drink anywhere in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Pulling together such a spectacular and diverse food and drink pavilion, which featured over 100 companies last year, at Balmoral is a real challenge for Food NI with restricted financial resources and a small team. In addition, in contrast to the Scots, we are unable to sell alcohol under the current licensing laws. So its testimony to the industry that they have supported the show and laid on such a splendid showcase.

There’s certainly more that we could do, and have the expertise, to achieve for the promotion and growth of the agri-food industry here with greater resources.

There’s scope for Food NI to lead a fully co-ordinated and integrated campaign further to increase awareness of the huge contribution of industry both here and in Britain.

An even higher level of awareness of the quality of our food and drink in Britain would lead to greater sales, strengthen the rural economy and enhance employment opportunities in these hugely important areas which have long been the seedbed of innovation in food and drink as well as wide range of industries especially engineering and, of course, hospitality.

Hospitality, as the latest Tourism NI figures show, is growing strongly from the expansion of tourism that’s been influenced by our burgeoning global reputation as an ideal destination for exceptional food and drink.

In addition, the importance of the right, especially seasonal plant-based, food to diet is being recognised increasingly in addressing chronic health conditions. Research shows that a diet rich in seasonal plants contributed substantially to gut health and to overall wellbeing. We have the wholesome food with provenance, safety and transparency to make a major contribution to this in both short and long terms.

Northern Ireland, for instance, has a cluster of companies which have won national awards in the production of food free from gluten, preservatives and additives and with reduced sugar and salt. Recently I visited Finnebroque to find out about their nitrate free bacon, that really is an important food evolution.

What this all adds up to is a progressive industry with talented producers that Northern Ireland can take pride in. Here’s to their impressive achievements, overall dedication to innovation, premium quality and outstanding taste.