Dunbia, Moy Park and Karro Foods visit major culinary event in attempt to put China on export menu
This time next week, a group of Northern Ireland food companies will be heading east for one of the world's biggest food industry events.
Food Hotel China is held every year in Shanghai - last year's show attracted 35,000 visitors.
Among the companies who will be there are major meat producers like Dunbia, Moy Park and Karro Foods, and small businesses including the healthy drinks maker Coco Mojo and the beermaker Pokertree Brewing.
Food exports from Northern Ireland total more than £1.3bn, with the bulk of produce going to the Republic and Great Britain.
The Chinese consumer market is overwhelmingly huge and growing fast. Economic analysts expect food consumption in China to grow by more than 7% this year, beer sales by 6% and mass grocery retail sales by nearly 8%.
Entering the Chinese market is a daunting prospect, even for seasoned exporters, so Invest NI is keen to encourage companies to take part in long-established trade exhibitions. At last year's Food Hotel China, UK companies secured a total of £1.4m worth of sales, according to UK Trade and Investment (UKTI).
Bill Scott, Invest NI's executive director of international business, said: "Food Hotel China is exclusively aimed at imported food, drink and hospitality supplies for the retail and food service sectors in China, and is a valuable platform to showcase the quality and innovation of Northern Ireland food and drink.
"Our manufacturing exports to China are increasing year on year and exhibitions such as this give local companies the opportunity to present their skills, products and services to a worldwide audience."
Moy Park, now owned by the world's second largest food company JBS, is one of Europe's leading poultry producers. It has had its eye on the Chinese market for some time and has formed a partnership with Ulster University's Confucius Institute, taking part in a Chinese language and cultural awareness course.
Alan Gibson, Moy Park's UK & Ireland director, said: "China represents an exciting future growth market for Moy Park, particularly with the prospect of an increasing population and a growing demand for our products. Currently the UK poultry industry is unable to export to China, but we are working closely with our Chinese partners to open up future trade opportunities."
Local pork producers are also gearing up for entry to the multi-million pound Chinese market.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has made three visits to China to push NI's case for export status and earlier this year Chinese officials made inspection visits to pork plants here.
Cookstown-based Karro Food Group - the company behind Cookstown sausages - currently exports pork to China from its plant in Malton, Yorkshire.
A spokeswoman said: "We are currently awaiting approval from the regulatory body to export to China from our Northern Irish site. Once this is received, we look forward to increasing our business in the Chinese market significantly."
The food and drink sector is Northern Ireland's biggest manufacturing industry. It's worth around £4.5bn and employs more than 100,000 people. And not surprisingly, it's one of the key sectors for Invest NI.
John Hood, Invest NI's director of food and tourism, said: "Last year, with our help, food and drink companies secured £23m of new sales with first time customers.
"Over the coming weeks we will be bringing over 40 buyers to Northern Ireland, including delegations from Spain, the UK and Republic of Ireland, as well as visiting food media journalists.
"We will also be hosting a special event to celebrate NI's tremendous achievements in this year's Great Taste, Blas Eireann and Irish Quality Food awards.
"This event will be the first major Invest NI event leading us into the 2016 Year of Food and Drink, during which we will enhance our global marketing activities in key international."