Plans by the Department for the Economy to scrap food-specific trade apprentices in favour of a more generalised scheme here have been slammed by a food awards body.
Terry Fennell, chief executive of the FDQ (Food and Drink Qualifications) - an awards body for the food and drink industry - said the move to create a cluster scheme under the term 'food operatives' for butchery, bakery and other food apprenticeships would "de-craft" areas of the industry.
He said the move would also separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which will still train students using trade specific programmes.
Mr Fennell also believes generalising trainee schemes would render participants unable to compete with apprentices from other nations.
He described DfE's proposals as "a hugely unethical and regressive step for apprentices, employers and the NI economy".
We understand that no SMEs were invited to the department's meetings.Terry Fennell
He said: "From a technical perspective, the new qualification (by comparison) will lack the depth and breadth of apprenticeship provision that is offered elsewhere in the UK and so restrict social mobility and transferability of the workforce and leaving apprentices, especially in the craft occupations, severely disadvantaged.
"If the proposal is accepted, it will mean the scrapping of apprenticeships for butchers, bakers, fishmongers and other traditional qualifications that are currently available for these occupations, that's the reality."
The competency-based Level 2 qualification is proposed to replace nine current proficiency based qualifications which include meat and poultry, brewing, dairy and baking elements.
It is believed the department ran a consultation period last week, however, the final structure of the food operative qualification is still to be decided.
"We understand that no SMEs were invited to the department's meetings," claimed Mr Fennell.
"Most qualified and proud occupational specialists such as butchers and bakers would strongly dispute that they are process operators," he added.
Mr Fennel said he had voiced his and the FDQ's concerns in a letter to Economy Minister Diane Dodds.
He urged others in the food industry who were opposed to the move to express their concerns to the department too.
"For 20 years the FDQ has been devising industry led qualifications for the food manufacturing and craft apprenticeship areas and in truth we could just remain dormant on this issue, indeed the prospect of a single qualification replacing the current multiple portfolio would bring operational savings.
"But we strongly believe this is a hugely unethical and regressive step for apprentices, employers and indeed the NI economy.
"The Agri-Food Sectoral Partnership does of course have every right to consider new and innovative ways to improve apprenticeships in Northern Ireland.
"However, such a radical move to effectively cluster many proud occupations in to a single model, many believe will have negative ramifications for the wider industry."
The Department for the Economy did not respond to a request for comment.