How to future-proof the food industry

Column 13-6-19 SM Farm

I have recently been involved in several different food and agriculture focused initiatives which have highlighted how crucial fresh thinking is to the success of our food and drink industry.

In March, NIFDA staged the 15th Northern Ireland Food and Drink Awards. Uniquely these awards have a strong commercial focus and recognise products that consumers really want to buy in quantity.

Today’s consumers are demanding lower sugar, salt and fat in their food, and alongside this they also want improved environmental and animal welfare credentials. Vegetables are also gaining in popularity as ‘five-a-day’ messaging slowly gains traction.

All of this, however, is overshadowed by the obesity issue which is described by some as being a similar health challenge to that of tobacco. Portion size, calorie density, menu reformulation, and lower alcohol consumption are all in flux as consumers struggle to lose, or at least control, their weight.

There is a strong message through all of this – consumers’ needs are changing, and the nature of our food must adapt, or we will lose out. As consumer trends are often driven by younger people, it stands to reason that we need to encourage fresh talent into the industry to ensure we can deliver the changes required.

Talent shortages are affecting the manufacturing industry as a whole. The Centre for Competitiveness recently held an event called ‘Manufacturing Talent Rules’ addressing this very issue and exploring ways to attract talent in order to enable future growth in the sector.

NIFDA’s ‘Harvesting Tomorrow’s Skills’ programme aims to address talent shortages in the food and drink sector through collaboratively working with a network of companies and organisations with the aim of recruiting an additional 15,000 people to the sector by 2020.

The NIFDA Awards showcased the type of innovation that comes from fresh thinking and recognised a range of new products, including enriched milk, additive-free bacon, Beef Teriyaki, speciality gin and rum, and even a chuck and cheek burger.

However, if we are to continue driving change and innovation in the sector we need to invest more in developing future talent, and we need increased collaboration with government to invest in more innovative technology to future-proof the sector – collaboration which is currently severely lacking.

NIFDA is currently working with international food exporting and collaborative projects promoting the production of healthier food. We are working with organisations in France, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and Wales amongst others. These partners span government, private sector, research and specialist food organisations. Across the spectrum, I am constantly impressed by how enthusiastic each contributor is about taking their food industry forward. Attracting and retaining talent is an issue throughout these countries too, but their cohesive and collaborative approach to this issue helps.

I can see how strongly each region’s officials support and invest in their industry, and I believe we have some lessons to learn here. The continuing absence of a capital support scheme for food and drink manufacturers in Northern Ireland is unacceptable and detrimental to our progress.

The joined-up, collaborative approach evident in other regions across Europe is the normal way of working, and we, as the exception, are missing out on that. We certainly need fresh thinking from our government if we are to get the support we require to compete on a global playing field. In contrast, I was heartened by the innovative thinking and fresh approach on display at the Northern Ireland heat of the Institute of Food Science and Technology Young Scientist Competition held at the AFBI headquarters recently and supported by NIFDA’s Educational Trust Fund. In front of an audience of their peers and supporters, nine students from CAFRE and QUB courageously presented their research findings. The standard of scientific knowledge, presentation skills and sheer enthusiasm displayed was impressive.

Topics ranged from dietary fibre, the use of rosemary and kiwi extracts and gold nanoparticles, to high pressure processing. The winners, Amy Murray (CAFRE) and Zoe Woods (QUB), will go forward to the UK National Finals. My hope is that these bright young people will make their way into our industry.

Whilst I enjoy seeing the many familiar faces I have worked with in the industry over the past 35 years, I look forward to welcoming new people with fresh thinking, new ideas and energy. I also hope that we see increased collaboration and fresh thinking at a political level so that instead of stagnating, we see this crucial sector flourish and grow.

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