It’s a sobering thought that one in two consumers across the UK do not trust the food that they are eating. I suppose we can thank ‘Horsegate’ and the food scares that preceded it for this wholly unsatisfactory state of affairs. But on the plus side, the recent Food Standards Agency (FSA) survey - from which the aforementioned statistic has been derived - highlights the growing consumer interest in how food is actually produced. And, surely this is a reality which the farming and food industries here in Northern Ireland can use to their advantage.
Effective marketing is, undoubtedly, the key to business success in the 21st century. And the food sector is no different to any other in this regard. Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association CEO Michael Bell - not a man known for mincing his words – has repeatedly asked the fundamental question: where’s the money? He was referring to the much discussed strategic marketing body for Northern Ireland and the need for Stormont to cough up £15m in order to make this happen. Of course, we will have to await the outcome of this week’s election to see if the Executive, as we know it, does have a future!
At first glance, £15m might seem to be a lot of money. But given the scale of the challenge that faces our food industry within the UK market alone, it now seems like a drop in the ocean.
We also need to become a lot smarter when it comes to identifying export opportunities for our food and drink. The United States is the world’s most affluent market. Surely the opportunity to gain tariff free access to that country would be a good news story for a host of local food companies. Yet, the instant the - now on hold - TTIP proposals come up in conversation the likes of the Ulster Farmers’ Union get very hot under the collar.
So, is the glass half empty or half full? The reality is that US farmers administer growth promoters to their beef cattle and can use BST in a dairying scenario. All of this is accepted fact and should act as a bulwark against vast tonnages of US dairy and beef products coming our way.
The other problem that we have is one of recognition on international markets. The average man and woman in countries like China and even the United States would have serious problems finding Northern Ireland on a map, never mind having a knowledge of the values enshrined within our farming and food industries. But they do have a strong sense of Ireland as a green, clean island sitting out in the Atlantic Ocean on the very edge of Europe.
Given this reality would it not make sense for all our food marketing bodies here to forge closer relationships with Bord Bia when it comes to marketing food from Northern Ireland outside of the EU? After all, this approach is already being taken from a tourism perspective. And it seems to be working pretty well.