Michele Shirlow for Ulster Grocer January 2018

Smart ideas the key to future success of food industry

In our strategic action plan, Taste the Greatness, we pinpointed innovation as a key element in the sustainable growth of the food and drink industry, now Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturer and a developing supplier of a very broad range of products to Britain, the Republic of Ireland and further afield.

Food NI is focused on assisting local companies come up with ideas for the new products that will ensure greater success at home and abroad. We are keen to deploy our expertise and contacts to help companies to promote their quality products and also appreciate the support provided by major retailers here which offer access to the market in Great Britain and also work with local enterprises in adapting to market opportunities.

Collaboration between the top retailers in particular and local producers has become vitally important and is contributing to the confidence and success of smaller enterprises. There’s an impressive track record of younger companies here benefiting from the platform these retailers provide to sales in Britain and the Republic.

As an industry we certainly punch above our weight in so many areas, growth contributes to employment opportunities here, especially in rural communities. To compete globally, we need to continue to raise the level of innovation in the fast moving grocery sector.

The need for all companies, both large and small, to step up investment in new products and services will surely grow in the post-Brexit era which will certainly see an influx of food and drink from abroad as a result of likely international trade agreements. There’s a very real threat of cheaper food and drink from abroad after we leave the EU single market.

Innovation is now recognised as being crucially important to economic growth short and long term. The benefits for individual companies have been shown to include improved productivity, greater efficiency and enhanced responsiveness to customer needs.  Research proves that a focus on innovation, especially in terms of new product development, can deliver faster turnaround times, increased value-added through improved products and greater customer exposure through better marketing.

The opportunities presented by the ever-expanding global marketplace only exist if we, as an industry, are able to exploit them.

We are fortunate here to have an experienced and successful support infrastructure among the best in the world, for wishing to invest in new products and processes. The Food Innovation Centre on the Loughry campus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, near Cookstown, has helped many young companies on the road to success. The ‘graduates’ include Kearney Blue Cheese, Glastry Farm Ice Cream, En Place Foods, Morrow’s Foods, Clandeboye Estate Yoghurt and Yomega frozen yogurt. The Agri-food Quest Competence Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast has also launched a programme to assist smaller enterprises. And the Foodovation Centre on the campus of the North West Regional College in Derry, which is spearheaded by talented chef Brian McDermott, has helped to create new products from the likes of Geri Martin’s Bespoke Chocolates, Carol Banahan’s Stock Pot, Tirkeeran Black Pudding, Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil and Dart Mountain Cheese.

As a result, there’s more support than ever before for imaginative thinking in our most important marketing industry. And, I am delighted to say, there’s greater collaboration at all levels in original products.

Innovation is producing the type of food that an ever-changing, modern marketplace demands.