Northern Ireland food and drink sales rise to £5bn but fears of a no-deal Brexit persist
Sales within Northern Ireland's food and drinks processing hit £5bn last year, according to initial estimates by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).
But food industry leaders have expressed concern over the impact a no-deal Brexit could have on the sector.
However, DAERA indicated that the pace of turnover growth in the food and drink sector slowed to 2.9% during 2018. That followed a bumper 2017, which saw revenues among NI food firms surge by 10.6% to £4.8bn.
The number of full-time jobs in the sector grew by 4.9% in 2017 to 23,641. And the pace of growth is expected to be sustained into 2018 to just under 25,000 jobs.
But according to the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), when indirect employment is taken into consideration, the sector accounts for over 100,000 jobs here, almost a fifth of the overall private sector.
NIFDA's executive director Michael Bell said: "While these figures are good news and should be welcomed, we must be frank about the scale of the challenges that lie ahead, in particular the threat of a no-deal Brexit.
"Our food industry is uniquely exposed by Brexit and a recent report from the Department of the Economy estimated that 40,000 jobs would be lost in a no-deal scenario due to our reliance on EU exports."
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The new data from DAERA put the value of food and drink exports to Great Britain at £2.4bn during 2017 - an increase of £190m. Exports outside the UK rose 14.7% in 2017 to £1.1bn, with the Republic accounting for £716m of those exports.
Food sales across the border rose £71m in 2017 and £79m in the rest of the EU.
Exports to the rest of the world rose £14.7m. Sales within Northern Ireland increased by £111m.
The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) said the performance of the food and drinks processing sector reinforced its importance to the local economy.
According to DAERA, the sector accounted for 32.4% of all manufacturing goods sold by Northern Ireland firms in 2017, up from the 25% share in 2016.
UFU president Ivor Ferguson said while immensely proud of the industry, the fast-approaching prospect of a no-deal Brexit on October 31 could not be ignored.
"A no-deal Brexit will inevitably end the current free trade arrangements across the island of Ireland by introducing export tariffs and additional controls and checks which will also add cost," he said.
"The introduction of differential import tariff arrangements within the UK will also undermine our home and GB markets. The combination of all of these would be disastrous for farmers, processors and the entire Northern Ireland economy."
Michael Bell also said a no-deal outcome "must be avoided at all costs". He added that the lack of a devolved government here continues to "stifle innovation and impede further investment" in the sector.
"If we are to achieve future growth, we need continued access to our important export markets, access to migrant labour, the establishment of a food marketing body, and government backing to foster further automation within the food processing sector," he said.