Festival brings diversity and quality to consumers

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I always look forward to Tesco’s annual Taste Festival. This year’s event takes place in Belfast next week. In essence, it represents a unique opportunity for local consumers to experience the diversity and true quality of the food produced here in Northern Ireland.

The past number of years has seen the local farming industry receive some good news courtesy of PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status for Comber earlies and Armagh Bramley apples.

But the agri food sector must now push on and convert all of this potential into ‘fruitful’ reality for farmers and growers. This means that every facet of our society – including the public sector – must be made totally aware of the quality produce available on their doorstep.

The sums are quite simple. More and more people across Northern Ireland are eating out.

In turn local restaurateurs are committed to sourcing high quality food, which they can serve to an increasingly discerning public. Significantly the margins that can be realised by farmers servicing the hospitality sector are realistic – provided the quality of the produce on offer is consistently good!

In the United States consumers are already spending half of their annual food budgets eating out and the prospects are that the UK will following suit over the next five to ten years.

Add in the fact that visitor numbers to Northern Ireland are increasing and one can project with a degree of certainty that the catering industry will continue to expand.

The response at farmer level should make the various farm quality assurance schemes more meaningful. It will also see farmers producing new and novel crops for which there is a strong demand and which can be grown successfully under local conditions.

And then there’s the public sector. The Health Service alone is responsible for an annual food procurement budget amounting to £500 million. Two years ago almost to the day, the government announced a major review of the way food and catering services are purchased by public bodies.

Since then the review has been looking at whether or not small and medium-sized producers are being given a fair chance to compete for contracts with public sector bodies such as schools, hospitals and prisons.

The investigation was stimulated, in part, by claims from Prince Charles that many publicly-funded organisations are not buying enough local produce.

That was over a decade ago. Unfortunately, the situation remains that there is a lower proportion of locally produced food bought in public sector contracts than is the case on the High Street. UK government ministers have not been slow in projecting that local farmers will get a fairer crack of the whip when it comes to the procurement of food by public bodies.

It’s about time that some of these predictions started coming true!