Northern Ireland's food exporters look to pass the £100m mark in China
Sights are set on growing Northern Ireland's exports to China, such as food, to over £100m, Enterprise Minister Jonathan Bell has said.
The minister, whose department has this week been rocked by job losses in manufacturing, remained optimistic about the agri-food sector, saying "the sky is the limit" for Northern Ireland food exports.
"Six years ago we were doing £60m of exports, this year it will be £95.5m, next year I want it to cross the £100m barrier so the strategy for that is to take the companies and the products into the markets," Mr Bell said.
Speaking to Belfast Telegraph at a showcase event for food producers, organised by the Department of Enterprise, the minister said: "The quality of our food and drink is an essential part of our tourism offering, for which I have set a target. The target is £1bn by 2020, and we are well on our way to achieving that."
The aim of the event was to showcase Northern Ireland produce to potential buyers including representatives from Fortnum and Mason.
Award winners acclaimed at the UK Great Taste Awards, Irish Quality Food Awards and the Blas na hEireann Awards were invited, however, many stall holders said they had limited success speaking to buyers.
Stalls included a range of well known brands such as Irwin's Bakery, Hannan Meats and Fivemiletown Creamery, down to smaller start-ups such as Coco-mojo, a coconut-based energy drink, and Pizzado, a Portavogie-based company which produces DIY pizza kits. Pizzado founder Karen Boyd credits last year's Irish Food Quality Awards as a major factor in a recent deal she struck with Tesco, which saw her products placed on the shelves of 24 stores.
The combination of three sets of awards with very different judging styles meant that a range of producers were included.
Blind tests were used for the Blas na hEireann Awards, a move which chairman Artie Clifford said meant small producers could fight the large producers on a level playing field, judged on food quality as opposed to presumptions about taste based on a brand.
Whereas, Laura Newton of the Quality Awards explained that the awards she represented were designed to judge food as the consumer would.
However, as the celebration went on at the Stormont Hotel, farmers were protesting at Belfast City Hall against what they say are unfair prices for their produce.
Mr Bell admitted that more should be done to involve farmers in the Year of Food, an initiative which will cost his department £300,000.
Industry experts have already criticised the team behind the Year of Food for not doing enough to reach out to farmers, with several primary producers saying they had not heard of it.
The minister said he was happy to meet with the Ulster Farmers' Union and other farming groups.
"We all have an interest in making our food products a success," he said.
"The farmer is producing and if I bring it to the market as I have here today, to the Asian market, European market, to the key Fortnum and Mason buyer's market, that individual farmer out with his sheep lambing, will get an increased profit at that level."