NI is stepping up to the plate

Flavours from Northern Ireland are found now in most parts of the world. Even islanders on the remote Falklands have been savouring dulse hand-picked from the shores of Strangford Lough, processed and exported by a small firm in west Belfast.

Go food shopping in Hong Kong and you will be able to buy porridge oats from Armagh and soft cheese, including unique Boilie Irish goat’s cheese pearls, from Tyrone in the region’s biggest supermarkets. Organic salmon from Co Antrim is sold to high-end restaurants and plush hotels in New York and Dubai.  

Fresh oysters from Co Down are served to diners in some of the swankiest restaurants in Paris. Virtually all the eels netted in Lough Neagh are now air freighted to markets in London and Amsterdam.

Beef and lamb products from here are now sold by many of Europe’s top grocery chains. Europe’s biggest poultry processor is based here. Sixty five per cent of the global output of the market-leading brand of Irish cream liqueur is produced at Newtownabbey and shipped directly to customers in 130 countries.

Spring water from Armagh is enjoyed by customers in the US and the Middle East. Passengers on many of the world’s leaving airlines use cream pots from Co Down in their coffee.

Food and drink from Northern Ireland has also featured on menus in restaurants run by top chefs such as Mark Hix, Heston Blumenthal, Raymond Blanc, James Martin, Jamie Oliver, Richard Corrigan and Rick Stein.

Now Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturing industry, food and drink contributes around £4 billion annually to the local economy and provides employment for almost 20,000 people in plants across the region. Overall, the agri-food industry here employs around 64,000 people and is now a vitally important part of the social fabric especially in rural communities.

Almost £1 billion worth of food and drink from local companies was exported last year. The industry now contributes around 20 per cent of Northern Ireland’s total exports of manufactured goods.

Currently food and drink firms sell 70 per cent of their products outside Northern Ireland, mostly to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland but increasingly to other parts of Europe, the US, the Middle East, India and even China.

It’s an industry which has continued to grow sales, exports and employment during the current global downturn. This performance gives the new Agri-Food Strategy Board, which is chaired by Moy Park’s Tony O’Neill, a solid platform for even faster growth in global markets.

Enterprise minister Arlene Foster has long recognised the industry’s potential to grow output, turnover and, of course, exports in both short and long terms. “Food and drink is at the very core of Northern Ireland's economy and one that never fails to deliver on quality and eating experience,” she says.

It was also one of relatively few sectors in any UK region to exhibit growth last year. Output grew by 10 per cent and recorded significant employment growth.

What’s helping to drive sales abroad is the commitment of food companies here to new products often developed to meet the specific requirements from supermarkets and caterers.

It’s an important focus that’s been encouraged by practical support from Invest Northern Ireland’s Food and R&D teams and also from experts at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural  Enterprise at Loughry, Cookstown.

Invest NI and Loughry are creating a conveyor belt of small firms with bright ideas for natural baby food, for burgers, wheaten bread, traybakes and honey that all meet current consumer demand for healthier products, as well as frozen yoghurt desserts, farmhouse cheese, gluten-free meat and chicken pies, and honey-flavoured butter.

This all adds up to a dynamic and successful industry with the potential to create greater employment through its focus on new products that customers in international markets wish and will enjoy.

This article appeared in the Belfast Telegraph on 20 March 2012.