He has called for a capital expenditure support scheme, as well as grants to help firms invest further in automation, innovation and skills. Whelan, who is group chief executive of dairy cooperative Dale Farm, has taken over from immediate past chair Brian Irwin and will hold the position for two years.
Whelan said it had been an “extremely challenging” time for the sector.
“Our workers in the food industry – our food heroes – have been working harder than ever to ensure that the nation continues to have access to safe, nutritious food,” he said.
“Companies have had to adapt to an ever-changing situation, responding rapidly to fluctuations in demand and transforming factories by implementing social distancing measures.”
Whelan pointed out that the industry had demonstrated its resilience and its ability to innovate. He said the loss of the foodservice market, such as restaurants, hotels, cafés, pubs and canteens, had led to serious stock and cashflow issues for many food manufacturers.
“Any short-term growth in demand from the grocery retail sector has not come close to making up the difference, and the Government needs to step in and support firms before it is too late,” he said.
“Northern Ireland needs a strong food and drink sector if its economy is to recover from COVID-19 and face the imminent challenge of Brexit. We need a capital expenditure support scheme now, and grants should be given to support firms in investing further in automation, innovation and skills.”
Whelan added that he supported the establishment of a food export marketing body, which he called “long overdue.”
“We have a world-class food and drink industry that feeds some 10 million people across these islands and beyond. I look forward to taking up the role of NIFDA chair and will continue to champion Northern Ireland food and drink as we face our present challenges and look to future opportunities,” he added.
George Mullan, managing director of ABP Northern Ireland, has been appointed as vice-chair.