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The Vacuum Issue 3 spacer Issue 3
Viking Food - An Interview with Michael Bell the Director of the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association
by Richard West
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R.W. What's your job involve?
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MB: My job is to support the food and drink manufacturers of Northern Ireland NIFDA ia a trade association representing 123 organisations, the vast majority of food manufacturers in Northern Ireland. But it's more than that it's a self help group, it's about industry to help itself deal with the problems that it faces.
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RW: What type of organisations are they, do you have a preponderance of dairy farmers for example?
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MB: Our members are spread uniformly through meat, dairy, fish, bakery, fruit and vedge, alcoholic drinks, non-alcoholic drinks, pork. From very specialist paté to crisps.
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RW: Is there anything you need to be able to qualify for membership?
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MB: You need a manufacturing base in Northern Ireland.
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RW: What are the main problems that face your members?
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MB: Customers want better value, they want better safety, they want better quality, they want more today than they got yesterday. On top of that we're now competing on a globalising stage and anybody who has visited a shop recently and has seen where things are coming from will have seen that. Food really is at the cutting edge of globalisation. That makes life very tough for us because that means that we're not only competing with similar companies in Scotland or England or Ireland, we are now competing with companies almost anywhere in the world.
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RW: Do you assist your members with just the market here or with export?
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MB: At the moment we're pretty focused on the market here. Last year we launched the first ever Northern Ireland food and drink festival. That festival aims to highlight the importance of food and drink to our whole fabric, economy, jobs and all of that, but more importantly our own taste. We've got a number of very unique products here that are Northern Irish and we like them. One of the things we'd like to do is to make sure they are still here in 10 or 20 years time, and that we're not having to eat something that caters to mid-Atlantic tastes.
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RW: Is it a level playing field or do companies here find it difficult to compete with larger companies or international companies?
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MB: it's not so much size. I think customers forget that we meet all the proper legislation, we pay minimum wage plus, our factories are safe, our materials are traceable and are from good sources; all of that has a cost. Some of our competitors do and some don't but the public aren't necessarily aware of that. I think there are some issues that are more interesting and come form the edges of the food community, one of which is, is it a good idea to burn a lot of oil to ship food three quarters of the way around the world just so you get it a penny cheaper? Is that a good use of resources? That's not a question that the public is asking but they will in years to come. Another interesting concept that has come to the fore this year is that there is a growing amount of evidence that you are genetically predisposed to foods from your area. In other words if you've got Viking blood in you then you will probably like food from that kind of region of the world. And there may be some issues with eating food that come from a completely different region of the world. The evidence for that shows that some ethnic groupings are very intolerant to certain groups of food. The evidence for that is growing and it's interesting if we think about it in the context of 'I want to eat any kind of food from anywhere in the world with any kind of flavour at any time.
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RW: You mention quality and health, if you mentioned food from Northern Ireland people do not think of things that are either, like the Ulster fry or the Denny's sausage. Does that represent all of your members?
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MB: That's a complicated question. Our brand is about value added. We think it's about personal taste and personal choice. Whether it is good for you or not, I would contend that all food can be good for you or it can be bad for you. It's about being responsible, it's about maintaining a balance. It's also about maintaining a good level of exercise.
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RW: What kind of relationship do you have with retailers, is it easier to deal with local retailers than UK wide retailers? MB: It's a bit like comparing apples and pears. We deal a lot with multiples and independents which is small shops and big shops. Historically we've done more with the big shops. The customer is king, you and I decide, it doesn't really matter who owns the shop. What really matters is what you choose when you go into the shop and that's what we are trying to influence.
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RW: If you ask people what has changed in food supply in Belfast its going to be getting red peppers all year round. If anything has changed in the diet then it's international supply and the change in the taste of consumers.
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MB: Your choice of items in a shop has gone from 2,000 to 20,000 items but more than that our tastes have changed. I drove past a chip shop the other day, I remember we used to see 'egg and chips, sausage and chips, hamburger and chips, fish and chips' and then at the bottom it said 'quiche and chip' I thought we're definitely going cosmopolitan. Things are changing. What I'm saying is that we need to be careful that we don't loose the things that we have.
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RW: Are your members making new products?
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MB: Yes, there are some. We've got some Indian food being produced here, some of that is about producing food that people want to eat and it doesn't have to be shipped around the world. We're perfectly capable of making it. You'll see an example of that with Scottish Brie, which you'll see in Marks and Spencer. I would hope that in due course you'll see Northern Irish Brie.
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RW: Do we have a different culture of food to, say, the French?
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MB: You may well talk to some of our top chefs who would be better able to answer that. It's mostly big flavours. If you think about our products local teas are quite strong flavoured, local drinks are quite strong flavoured.
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RW: I meant more that people are proud of their food in France. If you ask someone in France they say 'we produce 500 cheeses', it's difficult to imagine someone saying the same thing here.
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MB: But that's just us, we're not proud of anything, you're hard pressed to get a positive response to anything. I think you see that in the language, why do we use the word 'dead' so much?, 'dead on, you're dead right'.
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RW: What about information for the consumer?
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MB I think more could be done with websites. In terms of what's in products that's government's job to say here's what you can put in products and here's what you can't. It's the public's job to say here's what we want in our food and here's what we don't. It's the manufacturer's job then to make it.
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RW: If I went into a shop and picked up some processed food would it be possible for me to find out what's in it?
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MB: All retailers will have a specification for that product, either their own or the manufacturer's. A typical specification for a product is 25 to 50 pages long.
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RW: And that's for every product in the supermarket?
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MB: Yes, in terms of access to information there's more available than ever before. As a first point of call I would write to the manufacturer, if that doesn't work I'd go to the Food Standards Association. It may well be that the information is commercially sensitive.
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RW: The most obvious one is GM crops.
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MB: GM crops is a very difficult one, I was at a conference in Chicago a couple of years ago where the America food manufacturers thought that the public response to GM crops was a UK food manufacturer's plot to subvert their GM. And I had to explain that the public didn't want GM and the manufacturers were now struggling to find non GM raw material to put in food. And that's still an issue. Most manufacturers are very happy to give information about their product because they are proud of the products they make.
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