Food companies here are beating the recession by growing sales outside Northern Ireland, Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster has said.
The Minister was speaking at the annual UFU Farmhouse Business Breakfast, which she described as "a celebration of an industry that is at the very core of Northern Ireland’s economy and one that never fails to deliver on quality and eating experience."
The breakfast, she said, highlighted the importance of building a strong partnership between farmers and processors aimed at satisfying the requirements of consumers for the type of quality, healthy and safe food provided by the agri-food industry in Northern Ireland.
Arlene Foster said: "Food and drink here is one of relatively few sectors in any UK region to exhibit growth last year. Output grew by 10%, and additionally the sector displaying significant employment growth year on year of 2.9%.
"As a result of a strategic focus on developing new markets, Northern Ireland is now among the biggest suppliers of food and drink to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.
"Products worth more than £600million are also sold to markets outside the United Kingdom. When sales to Great Britain of more than £1.5billion are included, the proportion of goods sold to customers outside Northern Ireland rises to more than 60%. Overall it provides 15% of manufactured goods exported.
"This strategically important industry is now worth almost £3billion per annum and employs 19,220 people in processing a very broad range of food and drink. In addition, the industry has a strong commitment to innovation and currently contributes 14% to manufacturing Gross Value Added.
"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 service."
Highlighting significant export successes, the Minister said: "In the red meat industry, companies generated annual sales in excess of £1billion, selling around 40% of output to major European retailers including Carrefour and Auchan in France, Albert Heijn and Jumbo in the Netherlands and Spain’s Mercadona.
"The skills embedded in both our large commercial bakeries and small home bakeries means the traditional and innovative breads favoured on local breakfast tables are now being sold successfully throughout Great Britain."
Invest NI helped companies accelerate sales through a range of marketing initiatives.
The Minister said: "Over the past 18 months one-to-one buying sessions have been held for local companies with all of the biggest food retailers in the British Isles and in Europe.
"More than 800 face-to-face meetings have been arranged in the past 12 months and 80 local companies have achieved 275 product listings with multiples such as Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury, Tesco and Asda as well as the foodservice sector from ‘meet the buyer’ events at Invest NI’s offices.
"The total new business achieved on this is an impressive £40million and growing. Northern Ireland has much to be proud of in terms of commitment to excellence, professionalism and the successful focus on exporting."