North’s Agri-Food Sector Must ‘Up Its Game’

The north’s agri-food sector cannot afford to “sit out” the current financial difficulties, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (Nifda) has said.

Dr David Dobbin told delegates at the association’s annual dinner the industy must “up its game to compete”.

He told more than 200 leading figures from the sector that food manufacturers and processors must focus on pro-actively pursuing opportunities rather than simply adopting a defensive position.

“A general fall in commodity prices, adverse exchange rates, a price war on the high street and the ending of EU milk quotas have all impacted upon the local food and drink industry,” he said.

“Intense price competition in falling markets has resulted in lower returns and deflation with the impact being felt right along the supply chain including farmers, processors and retailers – none of whom has been making any money. However, we must focus on the opportunities rather than the problems.”

Dr Dobbin said the industry must exploit its strengths including having “one of the highest integrity supply chains in the world”.

The event was also addressed by Tesco‘s chief product officer Jason Tarry took to the podium on the evening to outline Tesco’s future plans in Northern Ireland

He said the supermarket’s input into the north’s agri-food sector had rocketed over the 20 y ears since it first set up in Belfast.

“In 1997 we bought £50m of produce from Northern Ireland. Now it’s nearly £600m a year,” he said.

And he spoke candidly about the retailers troubles over recent years which he said had been “well publicised”.

“Yes there is competitive pressure, the growth in the new channels, the growth in the new competition,” he said.

“But more significantly, we forgot about the customer – we did things for short term financial targets to the detriment of customers. It has put us under pressure and we’ve had to take some very tough decisions across the business – not least the decision to shut three stores here in Northern Ireland.

“What we have decided to do is put the customer back in the heart of the business. In this case, to serve Northern Irelands’ customers a little better every day.

“Customers are our magnetic north, we’ve gone back to our roots, gone back to our DNA and put the customer right back in the centre of every single thing that we do. This means we are addressing issues of service, availability and price. We want to make the shopping experience simpler.”