Michael Bell, executive director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association (NIFDA), told FoodManufacture.co.uk: “We took the Northern Irish finance minister to visit one of our companies in December last year. The company was able to demonstrate 400% growth through the recession to date. And this was a company established seven years ago, that has now gained a full national listing.”
That company was representative of many; judging by the report The Size and performance of the Northern Ireland food and drinks processing sector.
It showed that the value of sales for the food and drink sector as a whole increased 6.4% from £3.20bn in 2008 to £3.40bn in 2009. Provisional estimates suggest sales have increased by a further 8.3% last year to reach £3.68bn.
Food and drink businesses increased total aggregate profits before taxation by 44.7% from £64.7M in 2008 to £93.6M in 2009. Average profit margins rose from 2.0% to 2.8% during the same period.
The sector makes a fundamental contribution to the Northern Irish economy, according to the report. “The food and drinks processing sector made the largest contribution to total sales (21.9%), external sales (19.5% to the mainland) and export sales (16.3%),” it said. The sector accounted for 27.4% of the Province’s employment and 14.8% of manufacturing sector’s value-added contributions.
Employment in the sector was calculated at 19,464 full-time employee equivalents in 2009. That figure was expected to have risen to 19,684 full-time equivalents last year, according to the report, which was compiled with Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
Bell attributed Northern Ireland’s strong performance to its "compact community" and "strong and deep educational base" combining to provide a world-class area for manufacturing.
The main factor driving growth is rising demand for food and drink within Great Britain, where there is an import deficit of abour £18bn per year, said Bell.
Mainland customers accounted for the bulk of the production accounting for 42.3% of sector sales in 2009.
Categories recording the highest sales in Northern Ireland and the mainland were poultry, dairy and artisan-style food, said Bell.
Milk and milk-products contributed 48.7% of the sector’s total gross turnover in 2009 and 2010, according to the report.
Poultry meat made the second most important contribution.
Exports also remained strong. “We’re growing exports beyond Great Britain, our primary market, specific foods are doing well in America and further a field,” said Bell.
He identified markets in China and Asia as showing particularly strong growth potential. Value added products, such as artisan-style goods, perform best as exports, added Bell.
NIFDA is studying what government and the industry can do to accelerate growth. “We’ll be having a significant discussion with our colleagues in government in autumn this year, when the report comes out,” said Bell.