Michele Shirlow MBE – Farm Week Column 8 August 2019

I always get very irritated when people in the ‘corridors of power’ attempt to dismiss the food and drink industry here for not being ‘techy’ or lacking in innovation. This attitude shows a basic lack of knowledge and insight about what I know is a very dynamic and market-led industry.

Food and drink is a responsive industry that’s in touch with customers and focused on coming up with original and authentic food and drink, operating increasingly successfully in markets beyond these shores and especially in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, our two biggest markets.

The innovation and commitment to premium products were showcased last week in the prestigious Great Taste Awards and the British Charcuterie Awards. We also saw Dale Farm, our biggest dairy business, collecting a host of gold, silver and bronze medals at the influential International Dairy and Cheese Awards for its entire range of cheddar cheese that it produces at Cookstown, among the most impressive factories in the UK and further afield.

Every year the UK Guild of Fine Food challenges specialist companies across the British Isles and parts of Europe to come up with smart and tasty ideas in the iconic Great Taste Awards. Our companies, I am delighted to say, have always responded and come out on top in many categories.

Three of our companies have won the supreme championship four times in the past eight years. And hundreds have gained a host of stars for original products that the judges rate either as ‘exquisite, exceptionally delicious or simply delicious. We’re now among the very performers in Great Taste in the UK, Ireland and other parts of Europe.

There will be 10 local products from most categories – meat, seafood, baking flour, alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages, snack foods, and condiments in the running for the premiere award this year. That’s an outstanding acknowledgement of the talent in the industry here.

All our ‘star’ performers used their know-how and skills to come up with hundreds of original products that combine outstanding taste and quality with authenticity and provenance. These characteristics are increasingly driving consumer choices in many markets.

Food NI’s role is to promote these companies, their products and personalities behind them both here and abroad. We are focused in particular on measures to harness the dedication of producers here to inject ‘personality’ into the industry in response to the developing demand in most markets from consumers wishing to know the people behind the food and drink in their stores.

Winning the title of World’s Best Food Destination at the World Travel Trade Awards in London last November was a massive step in this direction, because tourists and other visitors are influenced by quality and originality of food and drink available and usually keen to know more about those producing these and how they are produced.

We’d love to have the resources to do more especially in terms of our engagement in Britain and the Republic. As a membership organisation, our financial resources in particular are limited.

Successes in international competitions are vitally important because they help younger companies in particular to overcome the traditional Northern Irish inferiority complex about their products by showing that they can compete and overcome competitors in Britain.

Great Britain remains the largest market for the Northern Ireland food and drinks processing sector with sales increasing to £2,337.1 million and representing 49 percent of total sales in 2017, according to a report from the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA). The report comes as fears grow over a post-Brexit influx of food and drink from outside the British Isles. I for one do not wish
to eat grain fed beef from other countries where animals are housed 24 x 7 in massive lots and routinely fed antibiotics. It’s not good for the animals and it’s not good for humans.

Even though we are emerging as a region with high quality produce the challenge remains that many of the smaller companies lack the financial and time resources to commit to meaningful marketing in Britain. We’d love to see funding to help many more of our Great Taste Winners, for instance, to harness the potential of their excellent products in Britain and the Republic.

I am especially grateful to Invest NI for enabling us to take a number of companies to major trade shows in Britain and the Republic. We will continue this drive to use our marketing skills, contacts and knowledge to help smaller companies develop the confidence and routes to sell their award winning products in both markets.