Food and drink contributes record £5.2 billion to Northern Ireland economy
THE north's food and drinks processing sector grew its sales by more than 7 per cent to a record £5.2 billion in 2018, new Stormont statistics show.
The value-added by the sector increased by 1.1 per cent to £921m on the previous year and the sector also provides jobs for more than 26,000 people.
The numbers also underline the significance of the GB market in particular, where sales in 2018 grew by another £240.1 million to £2.62 billion, or more than half (50.7 per cent) of the overall total.
To put that in context, Northern Ireland accounts for around £1.2 billion, or 22.7 per cent of the remaining sales, with the Republic worth £792.2m (15.3 per cent), the wider EU worth £443.1m and the rest of the world at £134m.
This comes as the government confirmed there will be checks on food going between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as part of the Brexit arrangements.
There will be checks on food at Belfast Port, Warrenpoint Port, and both Belfast airports, while Larne Port will be designated for live animal imports.
Although the government insists the checks will be on food coming into the north from Britain, producers still fear there is a significant risk of both tariffs and customs procedures causing problems for food and drink companies.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) figures show that beef and sheepmeat (£1,436m) and milk/dairy products (£1,143m) continue to be the largest sub-sectors in terms of gross turnover, accounting for almost half of the sector's £5.2bn sales).
Next biggest sub-sector is poultry, led in the main by Moy Park, where sales in 2018 grew by more than five per cent to £745.4m.
But the biggest growth sector (up 15.5 per cent) was bakeries, where sales grew from £325.6m to £376m.
The estimated number of direct full-time employee employees in the sector remained broadly flat in 2018 at 23,625, rising to more than 26,000 when 2,720 agency workers are added in.
It's poultry which provides the largest number of workers at 5,171 followed by beef/sheepmeat (5,048) and bakeries (4,057).
The food and drinks processing sector had 303 businesses in 2018, with most (238) having sales of between £250,000 and £10m. Twenty two Northern Ireland food firms have a turnover in excess of £50m.
The Ulster Farmers Union says the report underlines how critical the agri-food industry is to the north's economy.
President Victor Chestnutt said, “We are immensely proud of our industry and the quality raw material produced on farms. However the food chain can only succeed if everyone in it is profitable.
“The agri-food sector is a key future driver for the economic development of Northern Ireland. DAERA set out a vision of ‘a sustainable, profitable and integrated agri-food supply chain’, delivering the needs of the market. It is good that we are seeing scope to grow.
“Our industry is critical to the wider economy. The government must not overlook its strategic importance and this must not be forgotten in the Brexit discussions.
“Farming is the bedrock of the local manufacturing sector, supplying traceable and affordable food produced to world-leading animal welfare, environmental and food safety standards.”