Northern Ireland's food and drink sector 'will overcome challenges for bright future'

Prince Charles and First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster visit Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly, London to celebrate the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016. They are pictured with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and actor James Nesbitt, during a tour of the store where they learned more about some of the Northern Ireland produce on sale, and meeting staff and food producers.

THE future for Northern Ireland's food and drink sector is bright, despite current challenges faced by the industry.

Head of Ulster Bank in Northern Ireland Richard Donnan said the industry was "an incredible Northern Ireland success story" with weekly sales of around £175 million.

He was speaking at the bank's flagship lunch held yesterday at the Balmoral Show, of which it is principal sponsor.

Mr Donnan said commodity prices, exchange rates and other issues had brought "considerable challenges" to the industry but that it remained a "key driver" for the north's economy.

“Northern Ireland is blessed with fantastic natural resources and has talented people and businesses who are adding enormous value through innovation and an intimate understanding of their markets,” he said.

“With the global population rising and developing countries becoming wealthier, demand for what Northern Ireland's food and drink sector produces will only grow. It may not feel like it to everyone now, but the current challenges will also pass and the industry is well placed to capitalise.

“Collaboration within the sector as well as with government and banks like ourselves is one of the critical components of future success, so that challenges in the food chain can be overcome, export opportunities can be maximised, and the industry can be promoted to its full potential."

Director of fresh foods at Henderson Group, Neal Kelly said barriers to business in the agri-food sector "seem to be intensifying".

"In order to be successful, we at Hendersons forced ourselves not to fear change and found that being adaptive and moving with our market has led to significant growth across all aspects of our business," he said.

"I would strongly encourage everyone here today to avoid stagnation by placing more focus on innovation and have the courage to take risks in order to allow your business the freedom to flourish.”

Meanwhile, British prime minister David Camerson told a gathering at Downing Street that the north's food and drink sector would be better off remaining in the European Union.

Speaking at the event, Mr Cameron said he was "proud to host some of the finest food and drink producers from across Britain".

"Their products are popular not just here but across Europe and many of them do significant amounts of trade with the continent. But leaving the EU will rob them of the level playing field and the free access to trade that they currently have," he added.

Among firms represented at the event was Co-Down based Echlinville Distillery.

It became Northern Ireland's first licensed distillery in more than 125 years distilling its first spirit in 2013.

Director Jarlath Watson said: “With over 50 per cent of Echlinville's exports going to the EU, we value the ease and relative low cost of doing business within the EU's single market.

“Remaining within the EU will provide assurances to our new and existing customers, that we value our relationships with them and the access they provide us to their markets."

Earlier this week, iconic London shop Fortnum & Mason invited 23 businesses to showcase 42 products at a Taste of Northern Ireland promotion attended by Prince Charles and Northern Ireland first minister Arlene Foster.

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