Call for new global marketing body to champion the Northern Ireland food sector
Northern Ireland should have its own overseas food marketing body, according to the head of one of the region's biggest meat processors.
George Mullan, managing director of Irish meat giant ABP, which has factories in Lurgan and Newry employing 650 people, called for the initiative.
As well as meat processing, ABP is part of a joint venture locally with Fane Valley and Kettyle Irish Foods.
Through both sets of operations, Mr Mullan said the companies supported 9,000 beef farmers here.
Speaking at the Ulster Bank lunch at Balmoral Show, he was joined by Keelings Retail chief executive David Keeling and Ulster Bank senior agriculture manager Cormac McKervey.
The panel said the Republic's food sector had a strong champion in food promotion body Bord Bia.
Mr Mullan added: "The potential for Northern Ireland's food and drink sector is huge.
"Improved access to international markets assisted by the relevant expert marketing support has the potential to position Northern Ireland as a global centre of excellence when it comes to the production of quality naturally produced food."
Mr Keeling said the Balmoral Show was an opportunity for the Co Dublin-based fruit processor to meet its retail customers on this side of the border.
He added that sales of its products like blueberries and raspberries had "grown like a rocket" as consumer tastes had changed.
"We have been very lucky and our biggest challenge has been to keep up with significant growth every year, and we've been investing in people and processes," he added.
With one-fifth of its sales here, Mr Keeling said: "Not living and being based in Northern Ireland is perhaps to our disadvantage and that's perhaps something we would have to work on in the future."
Mr Mullan said ABP was also reacting to changing consumer tastes, launching a plant-based burger to cater for the growth in veganism.
However, he added that the company would remain first and foremost a red meat business and consumers would lean towards a "flexatarian" approach of avoiding eating red meat seven days a week but not eliminating it altogether.
Richard Donnan of Ulster Bank said: "Both ABP and Keelings are examples of firms responding positively to consumer trends with new and innovative ideas and initiatives.
"Ulster Bank is committed to continuing to support investment and innovation throughout the food chain and our principal sponsorship of the Balmoral Show helps us communicate that and our active engagement with the sector as a whole."