The Northern Ireland food sector has valiantly stepped up to the plate to face the unprecedented challenges posed by the Covid-19 crisis.
In order to adhere to government guidance and play their part in safeguarding public health, the sector has consolidated product ranges, implemented wider online delivery services and extended the use of social media to endorse and promote products.
Christine Haydock, a Senior Food Technologist at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE), said: “The rapidly changed market place caused by the pandemic has emphasised the importance and market value of original unique products and the need not only to develop new products but to explore alternative production pathways, identify alternative packaging and investigate methods to optimise product quality, while extending product stability.”
One way CAFRE has supported the food sector in seeking to innovate is through the Invest NI Innovation Voucher Programme.
The college is a knowledge provider on this programme, which offers a voucher of up to £5,000 to work with one of its food technology experts.
It is an ideal tool to stimulate innovative thinking and to help Northern Ireland small to medium enterprises to access expertise to help deliver innovative projects.
Christine continued: “Since 2008, the CAFRE team has contributed to 370 projects and counting. Innovation Vouchers are not exclusive to food businesses; this funding stream has been active across CAFRE’s entire portfolio of agriculture, horticulture and equine projects.
“Through our partnership approach we have provided companies with the support, knowledge and practical skills required to help promote innovation, develop new products and systems and help companies grow.
“We have worked with early stage companies to test new ideas and explore niche markets.
“One such entrepreneurial company is County Down based Pizzado. Established in 2013 by Karen Boyd, Pizzado specialises in the production of award winning innovative frozen pizza kits.
“Through working with CAFRE food technologists and availing of the support of innovation vouchers, the company has developed a unique award winning product which has gained significant traction in Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland.”
Pizzado proprietor Karen Boyd acknowledged the support provided by the innovation voucher and CAFRE, and said: “I have worked with Loughry Campus food technologists on many occasions developing new products; the most recent was finalising shelf life and nutritionals for a contract with Aldi Ireland. As always very helpful and efficient.”
Armagh based Davison Canners is a long established family business which traditionally focused on apple processing.
It worked with CAFRE and utilised an Invest NI innovation voucher to investigate product diversification.
Acknowledging the support provided by CAFRE, Alan Davison, managing director of the company, said: “We were awarded an Innovation Voucher by Invest Northern Ireland in 2016.
“The Innovation Voucher assisted in funding a research and development project which involved partnering with CAFRE.
“Utilising their expertise as a knowledge provider, the project allowed our business to expand into the retail dessert sector within the UK for the first time.
“Four years on, the dessert side of our business continues to grow rapidly year on year and we are now a leading player in the chilled dessert sector across the UK and Ireland.”
If you are interested in Invest NI’s Innovation Voucher programme, further information and access to the online application form is available at www.investni.com/innovation.
Christine Haydock concluded: “Applications for the voucher scheme close at 3pm on Friday, May 29, 2020.
“Alternatively, if you would like to discuss a potential project commercially in confidence, or have any queries relating to CAFRE’s role with the innovation voucher applications and project delivery, please do not hesitate to contact me.”
n Phone Christine on 07557 783909 or at CAFRE on 0300 200 7846, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine added: “Covid-19 has changed all our lives, but perhaps it has made us reassess our business priorities and think innovatively about new food opportunities for the future, so why not explore them.”