Northern Ireland’s food and drink sector is concerned about the negative impact that a UK exit from the European Union could have on the industry and wants more debate on the issue ahead of the vote on the so-called ‘Brexit’ later this year, a business event has heard.
Speaking at the first in Danske Bank’s series of Danske Advantage events for 2016, Michael Bell, Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association (NIFDA), said there were big opportunities for local companies in Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink. But he also said NIFDA is “very concerned” about the lack of debate over the effect a potential UK exit from the EU could have on the local food sector.
Mr Bell said: “We have enjoyed steady and sustained growth within the local food and drink industry over the past 10 years, and the outlook is positive as we aim to create a further 15,000 jobs within the sector by 2020. This planned expansion will be greatly accelerated by the creation of a dedicated export marketing body, which would help local companies to access new markets.
“The biggest cloud on the horizon is the ‘Brexit’. The EU is a major export market for us, and we would have concerns that a ‘Brexit’ could potentially hinder growth potential for the local industry.”
Danske Bank has launched the Advantage series to give clients and prospective customers an opportunity to hear from leading speakers in industry sectors that will be key to the ongoing recovery of the local economy. The ‘Leading the way for local food & drink businesses” event addressed the opportunities for growth in new markets and the challenges created by the weakness of the euro against the pound, the volatility of global commodity prices and fluctuating demand from core markets.
Kevin Kingston, Chief Executive of Danske Bank, said: “Danske Bank is committed to supporting the growth and success of our local food and drink producers and processors – from the large international businesses to our growing number of small and innovative artisan producers.
“Food and Drink is a sector where Northern Ireland punches well above its weight and where the strength of our produce and the innovation of our food and drink companies is leading to success and recognition around the world. Danske Bank is forecasting growth of around 2 per cent for the food and drink sector over the course of the next year, but we continue to believe the sector has potential to do much more.”
The sector is Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturing industry, with sales totalling more than £4.5 billion pounds and as many as 100,000 jobs supported by the agri-food sector including farming, fishing, retail and distribution, according to DETI.
Enterprise, Trade & Investment Minister Jonathan Bell told the audience: “Food is a major reason why people come here with tourists spending over £350 million per year on food and drink alone. It reflects and delivers a sense of ‘place’ for a visitor and is a vital part of the tourism experience – with many already saying it is a key factor when choosing Northern Ireland for a short break.
“The Northern Ireland Year of Food & Drink 2016 is an exciting initiative which presents an opportunity to showcase our vibrant food sector. I am confident this year will be a resounding success and leave a lasting legacy with significant improvement in the range, quality and availability of food tourism products, service, events and activities to help drive visitor satisfaction and deliver long-term growth and sustainability. I am certain The Year of Food and Drink will help to consolidate Northern Ireland’s growing reputation for excellence in food production and hospitality.”
The event, chaired by Jim Fitzpatrick, also heard from a panel of experts from the industry including Arthur Richmond, Finance Director of SHS Group, Ciaran Mulgrew, MD of Niche Drinks, Gerry Maguire, MD of Linden Foods and Martin Hamilton, MD of Mash Direct.
An audience poll found that the biggest challenge facing the sector is the volatility of commodity prices, closely followed by the prevailing weakness of the euro against the pound. The audience of key players from the food and drink industry also said that investing in innovation is the best way to overcome those challenges.