Enterprise Minister, Arlene Foster, argues that quality and innovation across the food and drink sector in Northern Ireland is bringing new dynamism to the future of the sector as a whole…
At a time when Northern Ireland is facing unprecedented economic challenges, I believe our food and drink industry has the potential to drive tourism and ultimately, provide economic benefits across the region as a whole.
Northern Ireland’s wealth of natural food resources, together with our stunning scenery and strong agricultural system is a winning combination, which we must make the most of. The most recent Northern Ireland Passenger Survey indicates that of the £540m spent by overseas and domestic tourists, 33 per cent of this was spent on food and drink, which equates to £178.2m.
The income generated by food and drink was even higher than that for accommodation. This shows the importance of food and drink to the visitor, and the local economy.
Our local produce, such as cheese from Fivemiletown Creamery, Finnebrogue sausages from County Down, our famous Bushmills Whiskey and Dulse from Ballycastle, provide a unique offering to visitors and sets Northern Ireland apart from the competition.
The quality of our food has been recognised by the UK Guild of Fine Food and I recently had the pleasure of attending a reception organised by Invest Northern Ireland where 27 local companies won a total of 56 gold stars in the Great Taste Awards.
The Great Taste Awards are a measure of the quality of innovation within the food industry, especially within the small business sector. Winning a Great Taste Award is testament to the consistently high standards our companies are achieving and sustaining, many in markets outside Northern Ireland.
The statistics of our engagement in the UK Great Taste Awards indicate that smaller companies in particular are increasingly recognising the importance of innovation and new product development. Food is probably the fastest moving and most challenging market, shaped by a number of factors from the changing demands of consumers to environmental concerns.
The importance of food to the local economy is seen in the statistics which show that 34 per cent of all manufacturing sales in Northern Ireland derive from the food, drink and tobacco sector. Speciality food, the focus of the Great Taste Awards, is an important and growing segment within the overall grocery market, with sales in the UK worth £3.6bn in 2006.
Invest Northern Ireland recognises the contribution of the food industry to the health of the local economy and has taken significant steps to increase its practical support to companies across a broad range of areas including marketing, new product development and design.
Food and drink processing is now our biggest manufacturing industry and one increasingly winning business in markets outside Northern Ireland. Our companies, both large and small, are now competing and winning because of the quality, wholesomeness and originality of their products and the strength of their commitment to excellent customer services.
No wonder then that so many of the multi-nationals are keen to give Northern Ireland produce a ‘shop window’.
Today Northern Ireland is among the biggest suppliers of food and drink to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
I know that Invest NI’s food division works closely with local buying teams to create new opportunities and I very much welcome the recent decision by ASDA to give this buying team responsibility for Scotland as well.
This gives NI companies an unparalleled opportunity to expand outside these shores using ASDA’s Bangor base, from where products worth more than £600m are sold to markets in the United Kingdom.
Increasingly, food and drink companies have become the dynamo driving our manufacturing sector. Significantly, the local food and drink industry sector here, in the middle of a global recession, increased output by almost nine per cent in 2008. In Great Britain, the industry experienced a decrease of 3.3 per cent.
The industry’s importance to the local economy is also seen in the number of people it employs – some 19,220 jobs in the sector at December 2008, an increase of 2.9 per cent over the year. Indeed, food and drink processing now provides 23 per cent of total manufacturing employment in Northern Ireland.
Food and drink companies, furthermore, are focusing increasingly on novel products that offer customers new taste experiences. It’s now a dynamic and customer-led industry.
Equally encouraging is the focus on innovative products and new brands.
Northern Ireland has much to be proud of in terms of its food and drink industry, and I have great cause for hope in the future potential of the entire sector.