Global spotlight shines on Irish food exports
Ireland is bidding to become a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink. In the first of a two-part series John Daly looks at how, already, the country’s reputation is stretching beyond the EU’s borders
By John Daly
ORIGIN Green is a comprehensive national sustainability development programme designed by Bord Bia, the first of its kind in the world, to help Ireland become known as the optimum source of sustainably produced food and drink.
The initiative was launched at the SIAL food trade fair in Paris in October to an audience of more than 300 food buyers from EU multiples like Carrefour and Monoprix, and would be “the starting point for Ireland to become a world leader in sustainably produced food and drink”, according to Taoiseach Enda Kenny.
Industry recruitment commenced in June, and to date 79 companies accounting for over 50% of Irish food and drink exports have signed up.
The Paris launch marked the start of Origin Green outside of Ireland, and will be followed by a Bord Bia global promotional campaign in 25 trade shows around the world in 2013.
“Globally, consumer demand for premium sustainably produced food and drink is growing and our ability to meet that particular need must be at the heart of our longer-term strategy,” said Aidan Cotter, Bord Bia’s chief executive.
“We intend to have 100% of Irish food and drink exports sourced through the Origin Green programme by the end of 2016.”
As part of its quality assurance scheme, Bord Bia has assessed the emission performance and carbon footprint of over 30,000 beef farms. “Taking these steps and setting these ambitious targets at national and farm level gives Ireland the most comprehensive and verifiable commitment to sustainability of any country of origin in the world,” he said.
Irish beef is increasingly in the international spotlight following its selection as a key ingredient for Bocuse d’Or, an esteemed culinary competition held every two years in Lyon, and regarded as the most challenging and prestigious haute cuisine cooking competition, often referred to as the Olympics of the culinary world.
The Bocuse d’Or finals will take place on the Jan 29 and 30, where 24 teams from across Europe, Asia, and the US will compete.
“With a majority of Ireland’s beef exports destined for European markets, the priority is to differentiate and position Irish beef by presenting a premium image to secure its place in an increasingly competitive marketplace,” said Noreen Lanigan, Bord Bia’s Paris manager.
“Securing this much sought after accolade is an invaluable endorsement and recognition of Irish beef.”
France is the leading eurozone market for Irish food and drink products, and is the second largest global market after the UK. France is Ireland’s biggest customer for lamb and seafood; second largest for beef; and third for whiskey.
Irish food and drink exports to France in 2011 came to €646m, an increase of 13.9% since 2010.
Bord Bia’s recent mission to Moscow to secure new business opportunities for Irish dairy companies in advance of the industry’s expansion in 2015 included the Irish Dairy Board, Kerry Group, Dairygold, and Lakeland Dairies.
“As Ireland gears up for increased milk production, international markets such as Russia are set to play an increasingly important role in securing new customers,” said Michael Hussey, the dairy and in&gredients manager at Bord Bia.
Ireland’s food and drink exports to Russia grew by 33% to €150m in 2011, having more than trebled since 2009. Russia’s recent accession to the World Trade Organisation provides further potential growth for Irish food and drink, particularly in the dairy sector where Russia is a major global importer of dairy products.
“Identifying and building relationships with strategic partners will be critical for Irish dairy companies’ success in the market,” said Alla Barinova, Bord Bia’s Russia market manager.
Supplier plan aids emerging firms
The Enterprise Ireland SuperValu supplier development programme has assisted emerging Irish food companies to achieve retail listings with supermarkets over the past six years.
To date, participants have benefited from €15m in direct sales from SuperValu and created hundreds of jobs. Assisted by Bord Bia and Teagasc, the scheme delivers support for small or emerging food companies to achieve the product quality, service standards, and technical innovation necessary to reach supermarket shelves.
“Supporting entrepreneurship is at the very core of SuperValu’s DNA. Aside from the 195 stores which form the SuperValu network and employ 15,000 people directly, we also support more than 600 Irish supplier companies and a further 14,000 jobs indirectly,” says Martin Kelleher, managing director, SuperValu.
“This programme is an example of our commitment to creating further employment by assisting small innovative local suppliers get their product to market, to help grow and drive their businesses forward.
“We know that our continued success is dependent on getting more local products onto our shelves, as consumers not only want to buy Irish whenever possible, but also authentic local food.”
Frank Ryan, chief executive of Enterprise Ireland, echoes the sentiment: “Food is Ireland’s number one export sector and critically important to our economy and to export-led growth.
“That’s why programmes like this are so important for the participating food companies and building on their potential to develop their business further, both in Ireland and export markets.”
Company: Green Pastures
Products: Cheese and dairy product ranges
The wet weather certainly didn’t put a damper on the success of Green Pastures and its Yeats Country dairy products at the 2012 Nantwich Cheese Show where it picked up a total of 10 awards.
The Nantwich Show, which incorporates the International Cheese Awards, is now the largest cheese and dairy show in the world.
In a hugely competitive field of 3,925 entries, Green Pastures won two gold, one silver, four bronze, and two VHC prize cards.
In addition, the company was awarded the Clawson Salver Trophy for best yoghurt in show for its Yeats Country Raspberry Yogurt.
The Nantwich Show follows the company’s recent success at the 2012 UK Great Taste Awards, where the company was listed as a producer of one of the top 50 foods in Britain.
“We have achieved a lot in a short period of time, but innovation and awards don’t arrive simply by luck,” says managing director John Molloy.
“Our approach to the art of cheese-making is a complete and total love and passion combined with forensic attention to detail from the farms that produce our cheese milk.
“That’s what gets the quality, taste and ultimately the international awards.”
Great Taste has been the biggest independent benchmarking scheme for local, regional and speciality foods in Britain since 1994, and sees 350 professional foodies brought together to take part in 45 days of judging to decide which foods deserve top honours.
“Our main export market for our Green Pastures products is the UK, so these awards are hugely important in heightening our profile over there — we would have seen a growth there of 50% over 2012,” says John. “All of that has contributed to more jobs and expansion back home here in Donegal.
“Looking to 2013, we are very optimistic. There is plenty of opportunity out there and we would have to add a further significant percentage growth over the coming year.
“The real growth started for us in 2004, and we are taking the company upwards in a steady, even arc — adding jobs and plant as it expands.
“We are very confident looking to the future.”
Products: Salts, herbs, and seasonings
Founded in Febr 2011 by Edel Cooney, Simplee came about partly as a result of her growing too many herbs in her garden.
Rather than dry them in the hot press, she chopped them up and put them in a big bowl of sea salt. The result was a fragrant, herb- flavoured seasoning that was soon being requested by friends and family.
Jars were bought and gifts were given, and some local shops began selling this fresh herb salt. Having been made redundant from her banking job in 2010, she grasped the nettle of starting a business around a product she knew very well and began packaging her flavoured sea salts to butchers and supermarkets in the Cork area.
“I always had an interest in the possibilities of the products and it seemed a natural progression to start the business with my redundancy cheque,” she said.
A short while later, she won a bronze Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Award in 2011.
“That was amazing for me, and especially at a time when the business needed a higher profile in those early days,” she said.
With brainstorming sessions around the kitchen table with her husband Damien and her father Christy, former president of the GAA, new variations were slowly tested and added to the range: Garlic sea salt, lemon pepper, sweet and smoky sea salt, and an all purpose salt-free seasoning.
“The idea is to give the consumer an extra aspect to their cooking. All our products can be part of a marinade or a salad dressing for meat, seafood, vegetables, eggs, chicken. And so far, thankfully, the response from the public has been really fantastic,” she said.
Edel credits much of the company’s progress to having completed an Enterprise Board Advanced Food Programme. “Bullseye Food Marketing run the course in conjunction with the Enterprise Board and any questions we had about running a food business, they knew the answer to.”
Company: Sásta Sausages
Product: Artisan sausages
We found the farmers’ markets the best kind of market research you can do
When his former career in the construction industry fell foul of the recession, John Paul O’Connor decided to take a change of direction into a business far removed from bricks and mortar.
With the support of his wife Kathleen, he looked to starting something in the immediate vicinity of his hometown of Cromane.
“We had both worked in sausage plants in England in our youth and knew a fair bit about that business, so it seemed a natural progression to start Sásta Sausages,” says John Paul.
Having received full licensing approval in early 2012, the product quickly garnered a strong local following. “We sourced local pork and decided to make sausages from recipes passed down through both our families, and, thankfully, they proved very popular right from the word go.”
Producing sausages and puddings at its plant in Cromane, Sásta began selling at farmers’ markets and quickly found local hotels and B&Bs as regular customers.
“We found the farmers’ markets the best kind of market research you can do, the response is right there in front of you and people are very quick to tell you what works and doesn’t work.
“The sausages are 93% pork, and the vegetables and herbs I grow myself. We use gorse flower, also known as furze bush, which is dried and used in the black pudding, like my grandmother used to do. We also use wild garlic in the spring time.”
At the recent Blas na hÉireann National Irish Food Awards, Sásta Sausages won gold in the best emerging Kerry producer category, while also taking bronze and silver in the black pudding category.
“Our aim is to keep building the business slowly, and we are presently negotiating with Harrod’s in London to hopefully supply their Food Hall in 2013.
“So, definitely, things are looking very good for the coming year.”
Company: Chia Bia
Good business can come from the strangest places, and in the case of Barrie Rodgers it began with a badly sprained back muscle while on holidays in America.
“It was 2009 and I was visiting America and pulled my back getting out of bed,” he says.
“Friends recommended Chia seeds as having good anti-inflammatory properties. I gave it a go, and found a wonderful result from it.”
On his return home, he decided to take the idea further and eventually started up Chia Bia in Tramore, where it now employs seven.
The chia or salvia Hispanica plant is native to Mexico and Central America, with its seeds’ impressive nutrient profile dating back to the Aztecs and Mayans, who used them as currency and offered the seeds to their gods in ceremonies.
Used for wounds, colds and sore throats, upset stomachs, body odours, prostate problems, and constipation, chia was worshipped for its health benefits.
Even though the invading Spanish conquistadors tried their hardest to abolish chia, it did survive in small clusters — especially among the Tarahumara Indians, who are legendary for their long-distance running ability and are known to annoy marathon sponsors across the US when they breeze past ultra marathoners, wearing sandals and chewing on chia seeds.
“Author Christopher McDougall has helped grow awareness of chia seeds through his now famous book, Born To Run, where he explores the life and running habits of the Tarahumara Indians,” says Barrie.
Chia Bia products are available in Dunnes Stores, Supervalu, and 300 independent health shops around Ireland. Having established the product, the company recently launched into the British market and is now available in Holland & Barrett outlets, Selfridges, and a growing number of independent health shops.
“The response in the UK has been really good and we are now looking to the European mainland as the next natural market to explore,” says Barrie.
The chia seeds are shipped from the US and packaged at the Tramore facility, and have proved very successful as a topping for breakfast cereals and in smoothies. “We also make two organic soda bread mixes and three chia-based cereal bars.”
Company: Crowe’s Farm
Products: Artesian bacon range
Based in Dundrum, Co Tipperary, the Crowe family has been farming their land for over 100 years.
The business is run by the new generation of the family, with its organic dry cure back rashers made at the family farmhouse where John Paul looks after the rearing of the animals and TJ processes the meat using a special recipe passed down by their father.
At the recent National Organic Awards, Crowe’s Farm won the best overall organic product, chosen for its “high quality, superior taste, and smart packaging” according to the judges.
“Our mission is to keep making the most natural, pure, best tasting bacon products available,” says TJ. “To this end, we use only the finest artisan bacon, free from artificial colours, flavours, and additives. What success we’ve achieved is down to a commitment to product integrity and to always using only the most natural ingredients.”
A focus on niche market segments is the path forward for this thriving family enterprise, he believes. “In 2013, we are looking at ways in which we can specialise even more. Specialisation is the way to grow, without a shadow of a doubt. Small companies cannot compete in the mass market, so the smart route for businesses like ours is to diversify and become the ‘go to’ people for certain kinds of products made to a level of purity nobody else can reach,” he says.
The company employs 13 people full-time, a figure he expects to rise. “Our turnover has been increasing steadily over the past few years, but we would not mind taking a temporary hit on turnover as long as it allows us to grow in the way we feel is the right one for Crowe’s Farm.”
The UK is an integral part of the expansion strategy. “We have already dipped our toe in that water, but in a very small way. We are keenly aware of that massive Irish community in London, Manchester, and Liverpool, and they are consumers who want to get that taste of home on a regular basis.”