Northern Ireland prepares to serve up some of its finest produce
Our first Year of Food and Drink in 2016 comes just at the right time to showcase the outstanding taste, quality and variety of our award-winning producers and chefs. It's the right time, because we have always had world class ingredients, and the sector has mushroomed in recent years with new products and talented chefs. We are ready to take our place as a globally excellent food and drink region.
A major promotional drive is being planned which builds on our strengths and includes food and drink themes for each month next year. It promises to be a really exciting 366 days which will engage people across Northern Ireland and reach out to international journalists and chefs who, we hope, will act as ambassadors for our produce and our region in years to come.
This year-long initiative will expand the engagement with local food and drink, the companies which are already making a huge contribution of almost £5bn to the local economy and providing employment for upwards of 100,000 people throughout the 'farm to fork' supply chain.
Further growth in sales within Northern Ireland and abroad will strengthen the economy of rural communities in particular, where most of the processors and all the primary producers are based.
The year will feature major food events including the annual Royal Ulster Agricultural Show at Balmoral Park, where Food NI organised a record-breaking food pavilion with almost 100 companies last year, and we also expect that the UK Guild of Fine Food will be returning to Belfast to judge Great Taste entrants.
I am confident the public, as well as retailers and food service organisations, will seize the opportunity to support such an important campaign that will have a massive impact on the local economy.
We also want to see restaurants, hotels, cafes and bars showcasing local food on their menus - it already accounts for one third of visitor spend.
I am sure our talented and award-winning chefs, many of whom already endorse local produce, will play a part by creating innovative dishes for diners to enjoy.
Roll on, year of food and drink.