Five days of deal-making at this year’s biggest food fair in the world gave Irish producers a vital platform as they seek new markets beyond the UK, reports Padraig Hoare.
IT WAS five days of frenetic dealmaking, intense rapid-fire negotiations, and exhilarating lead-chasing — this was SIAL, the biggest food fair in the world this year.
Ireland has long been the little engine that could when it comes to overperforming in a global context.
Poetry, literature, foreign direct investment, golf, rugby, boxing, you name it — it stands to reason that Irish food producers would also exceed expectations on the world stage.
At Paris Nord Villepinte, on the outskirts of the French capital, Irish food producers competed with their peers from almost 120 countries for the affections of more than 300,000 visitors over five days.
This year had more significance than most, with a botched Brexit at this point as likely as a mutually satisfactory agreement between the UK and the EU, despite the Groundhog Day declarations that a deal is imminent.
Irish exporters, of which food producers form a sizeable chunk, have been compelled to look beyond our nearest neighbour in the search for new customers.
Diversifying into new markets is no longer seen as an option for many SMEs and food producers — it is now seen as essential.
What better stage than SIAL for 32 Irish SMEs to find those new markets?
SIAL International Food Fair in Paris is this year’s biggest business-to-business (B2B) trade event in the world. Nicolas Trentesaux, SIAL network director, said: “It is truly the global thinktank for the food industry, the international laboratory for food innovation in all its facets.
“SIAL Paris offers a unique and comprehensive melting pot of experiences from across the entire food universe. For the sectors that already count today, along with those in their infancy, the young startups that will be making the news tomorrow in France, India, Canada, Brazil or elsewhere. There was a window of visibility for everyone.”
To maximise the impact of Irish exporters at SIAL, Bord Bia worked with them in the run-up to the event to ensure they were fully equipped with the facts around sustainability and UN commitments, and to ensure the buyers appreciate the dedication of Irish farmers and food producers to attaining the highest standards of quality and sustainability.
In advance of SIAL, Bord Bia also pinpointed key European buyers through its targeted digital marketing campaign, highlighting the attendance of Origin Green members at the event and inviting them to explore business opportunities with the organisation.
With the backing of Bord Bia, Irish food producers hustled and harried, cajoled and caressed, persuaded and pre-empted business peers from France, Germany, Asia, and the US.
The dance of all dances began on the Sunday, where the relative tranquility of the Paris sunshine may have given a false sense that it would be an orderly affair.
If Sunday was the foxtrot, then Monday was the tango — intense and flirtatious, full-on, all-embracing.
The organised chaos ran for another three days, until Irish firms could negotiate no more, and had left everything on the table.
Bord Bia’s four Origin Green stands — meat, dairy, prepared consumer foods, and confectionary foods — were right in the middle of the action, with translators and advisers on hand to assist Irish SMEs to seal the deal.
Brexit was firmly on the mind of all stakeholders, Bord Bia chiefs and businesses alike.
Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy said that since the Brexit vote, it has worked closely with the industry, and specifically with UK-exposed companies, to measure the risks to their growth strategies and to explore diversification options in new markets.
“Many of the companies at SIAL participated in building this data through the Brexit Barometers and the Market Prioritisation reports over the past two years.
“We now understand better the risks around Brexit and the measures we need to take to support companies to get the right products into the right markets to ensure sustainable growth.
“With the support of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine we are now developing our ‘Plan to Grow’ service, through which we will work with companies across all sectors to identify priority markets for them individually, develop marketing strategies, interrogate market and consumer research trends, as well as enhancing brand and product differentiation in association with our Thinking House,” she said.
Chairman of Bord Bia and former chairman of Cork’s Carbery Group, based in Ballineen, Dan McSweeney said the Origin Green Charter set Ireland apart from competitors at SIAL for international buyers.
“The power of the Origin Green programme to differentiate our offering at SIAL and provide solutions to food buyers struggling to meet the demands of their consumers for sustainably- produced food sets Ireland apart and is vital to securing premium positioning for Irish product in Europe and further afield.
“Ireland’s Origin Green farmers and food processors are providing the independent assurances that increasingly appeal to buyers and give us an edge as we compete with over 7,000 exhibitors at SIAL to win the business that our industry needs to grow in a post-Brexit trading environment and meet the targets of Foodwise 2025,” he said.
Minister for Food, Andrew Doyle, said the record number of Irish companies attending the biennial affair was no coincidence, considering the implications of Brexit. “The record presence at SIAL shows the confidence of Irish food and drink companies in meeting the challenges of Brexit and the ever-changing requirements of the international marketplace. The fact that a third of those here are first-time exhibitors at SIAL demonstrates clearly the strategy to shift away from reliance on one market, opening up to opportunities in Europe and further afield to reduce their risk to trading volatilities.
“On the marketing and promotion front we have increased Bord Bia’s budget by €5m to implement its export growth strategy for the industry. While the UK market continues to perform well, with an increase in exports again this year, it is prudent to increase our footprint internationally and SIAL gives us an opportunity to do that, with 160,000 trade visitors from 110 countries.”
As it happened, the projections were off. Rather than 160,000 trade visitors, the number exceeded 310,000, according to SIAL figures, as the event covered an area equivalent to more than 100 supermarkets laid end-to-end.
Established in 1988, Coolmore Fresh Foods began as a farmhouse bakery, producing cakes in an Aga cooker at a farmhouse in West Cork. The business grew steadily over 10 years, going from strength to strength.
In 1998 it moved to what is now a state-of-the art factory in the Lauragh Industrial Estate in Bandon, Co Cork.
Coolmore sales manager for Europe, Trevor Dunne said an event like SIAL was an opportunity to emphasise the provenance of Irish food.
“For us, we try to produce everything that is good about Ireland. We use Irish butter, for example. You come to events like this and you get a sense of different flavours, and it brings it back to the provenance of the products. That is the first thing that buyers look for —the ingredients, they ask what is in it and what it not in it. That is vitally important.”
Hard Brexit or soft Brexit, Coolmore will keep its exports into the UK, while looking at expansion into new markets.
“We’re in 10 European markets at the moment; we’ve just started business in Dubai; and we’ve just signed an agreement into the US.
“You have to diversify and get into those markets. But even if no Brexit, we will still concentrate on the UK.”
The recognition from national awards is an excellent marketing tool as firms such as Coolmore woo new customers abroad, he said, as is commitment to sustainability.
“Awards are important. We’ve just won gold at Blas na hÉireann and that is a big thing for people — to see you are winning awards at home. Even with the likes of packaging and sustainability, we are leading the charge.”
Bord Bia is essential for SMEs braving new worlds in search of new custom, he said.
“Bord Bia give us support on everything we do, such as setting up meetings, providing market research. It’s a support network for small companies like ourselves that are taking big leaps into the European market.
“Even here, we have translators on hand in case we encounter difficulties. There are not many companies here that have such a support network as the Irish ones.”
Artisan food specialists Prestige Foods was established by Ireland and France-trained chef John O’Connor in 2003, growing from a small premises in Listowel to a modern 2,000sq m facility.
SIAL offered yet another avenue to expand its offering of sweet and savoury handmade artisan food.
“We’re here for the first time this year,” said O’Connor.
“I have visited twice but this is the first time showing our wares. You are talking about spreading out, with Portugal, Spain. We are already in Switzerland and France prior to coming here, as well as the UK. We were hoping to push it our further after coming here, and I know now that we will. When we go back, we will analyse all the information we have taken.
“Outside of Brexit, you have got to push yourself out. It is hugely important for us. Nobody knows with the cat and mouse that is happening over the next few months. You just keep preparing as best you can.”
As well as securing business in new markets, it is a chance to showcase other indigenous food producers used in their artisan range, O’Connor said.
“There’s a goat cheese tart from a producer in Cork and we are showing off his goat’s cheese in Paris. I’ve been bragging about it to people from Europe, not just because it is from Cork, but it is the best of Irish.
“Johnny Lynch’s buffalo mozzarella from Macroom is here, and it is being sampled here at SIAL in Paris. That is Ireland working together. That is the story we tell. Bord Bia offers fantastic help and gives us confidence,” he added.
Research and development manager Tracey Horgan echoed Mr O’Connor’s sentiments about Irish producers working together, but also how attending shows like SIAL had set the stage for forging new business relationships around the world.
“Our milk, cream and butter are all from Lee Strand co-op in Tralee. Our cream cheese and sour cream is from Donegal. Our eggs are Irish. We’ve been getting our lemons from a Sicilian family, who we met around a decade ago, that is used for our lemon curd.
“A lot of collaboration comes from these trade shows. We use the very best of Irish. We are doing a lot of product in France at the moment, some to Switzerland and Germany, and are in the UK for the past 18 months or so.”
Sales director Clive Levene said SIAL was not about passing interest, but forming tangible relationships.
“Our range is unusual. This is establishing whether tastes around the world are the same as ours. People in Ireland and the UK love it, so it is to see if those from Spain, Mauritius and the like do too.
“We do artisan foods at affordable prices - we are not artisan and expensive. We’re not cheap but we are affordable. We are the most exciting artisan food business in Europe at the moment, and we feel SIAL is a perfect showcase for that.”
Folláin was established by Máirín and Peadar Ó Lionáird and business partner Eithne Uí Shiadhail in 1983, using a family recipe, passed down through generations, for grapefruit marmalade.
From modest beginnings, the company continuously grew over the years with a rising demand for Folláin jams, marmalades, relish and chutneys. There are now almost 20 employed in the family business.
SIAL offered the chance to spread the goodness to new markets, according to Pat O’Farrell, the firm’s commercial manager.
“It’s critical really in getting your name out into the continental marketplace. To sit in the indigenous market in Ireland is something we do very well, but you have to become known outside of Ireland.
“You want to be seen at events like this, not just once, but on a continuous basis, to be seen year after year. That builds up a degree of trust with buyers, etc who say yes, we’ve seen that company before; we know and recognise the name and we want to stay engaged. That encourages re-engagement in product development.”
Mr O’Farrell said companies such as Folláin take the role as Irish ambassadors very seriously.
“You are promoting the quality of Irish awards internationally also. Blas na hÉireann is as high a standard as anywhere in Europe.”
Brexit was a real concern, but also an opportunity, he said. “The uncertainty is something we are all very concerned about. We all have to be very conscious about how we develop our business going forward. We have to be very conscious also of customers across Europe who have been buying in the UK, and are now looking to Ireland as an opportunity.
“We should be held in the same regard that some of the UK food producers they have trusted for years are, and we should be putting ourselves forward as an excellent alternative.”
Bord Bia’s sustainability programme Origin Green was also vital, he said.
“Packaging, energy efficiency, waste reduction, local biodiversity, supporting local communities — capturing things like that under the Origin Green banner, we are able to use as a pivotal sales tool.
“We are all experts in the food industry; we know our customers and we know what sells and how to sell it. But being able to say we are a conscientious global player makes a big difference.”
The Lismore Food Company brings together three artisan food producers, combining 200 years of baking.
Beth-Ann Smith’s family history in food stretches back to Smith’s Stores, a fine food delicatessen and bakery on Cork’s Patrick St. Having trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School, she is now the head chef at Lismore Castle.
Brothers Owen and Ken Madden’s family opened a bakery and pub on Lismore’s Main St in the early 1800s.
In October 2014, the Three Biscuiteers combined their cookery and baking expertise to launch a range of fine sweet biscuits.
The Lismore Food Company’s fine biscuits, confections, and snacks are available throughout Ireland, the UK, and selected stores in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Mr Madden said SIAL was an “extraordinary event”.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for us to meet colleagues from all over the world, and create opportunities we would not be able to achieve back at the desk back in Lismore.” With Brexit looming, European markets are key, he said.
“Although Britain is our nearest neighbour and we continue to sell our products there, and hope to continue selling our products into the UK market, Ireland is very close to our neighbours in Europe.
“Access is also very easy now. Sending product abroad over the past number of years has become much easier, as has access to the US and Asian markets.”
Asia is very encouraging, according to Mr Madden.
“We sell our products at the moment in Japan. The Japanese market finds our packaging very attractive, as well as the taste. There is a lot of opportunity for us there, as there is in China. There is a lot of opportunity as a whole in Asia.”
Lismore Food Company just announced the launch of its new range of premium fine snacks. Ms Smith said: “It’s the perfect moment to bring this terrific range of delicious snacks to the market. Our brand is well recognised in the premium sector and premium is becoming more and more important to consumers in their everyday purchases. These snacks will stand out in this high growth category.”
In 2005, Helen O’Dowd and Kevin Byrne identified an emerging opportunity in the natural health food market.
In the intervening period they have grown Virginia Health Food from a start-up business to its current position as the largest supplier of milled flaxseed (linseed) products to the Irish and UK markets.
Virginia Health Food produces and markets a range of innovative, functional, and free-from health and dietetic food products under its own brands to mainstream and health food retailers in Ireland and Europe.
In 2016, Virginia Health Food invested over €1m in a state-of-the-art production plant for the new Squbes healthy snack range.
The range was developed by the Virginia technical team of food scientists in the company’s test kitchen/ laboratory in Carrigaline, Co Cork.
SIAL was a huge opportunity to showcase Squbes and the company as a whole, said vice president of North American sales, John O’Connor.
“Helen is a food scientist and nutritionist, and her passion for food has been the brains behind the operation and how we deliver good food. We’ve in about 15 SuperValus since September, as well as Centras.
“They’ve been a great supporter of what we are doing. We’ve been trying to get out and do tastings, because we are confident that once people taste it, they will realise you don’t have to compromise on taste just because you are using healthy ingredients.
“SIAL is very important to us — we’ve been doing a lot of trade shows over the past few months. We’ve been in the US, we did a couple in London.
“These global shows are very important in seeking business outside of our home market and the UK. We have a really nice business in Germany.
“Tastebuds are tastebuds, they don’t differentiate with nationality. This is my first year doing SIAL. It is five days of intensity. It is a massive event. You are seeing people from all over the world, plus the French market is one that interests us, as well as the Nordic markets. We’ve also had people from Israel, Turkey, and Greece, Brazil — people are attracted to the healthy trends because their customers are seeking it more and more.
“The US is a very big market to look into. We all know Brexit is looming; you don’t know what is going to happen exactly, but we have to seek out markets within the EU.”
Irish food and drink is big business, we all know that. Just how big, perhaps we haven’t always quite realised.
In 2017, food and drink exports were valued at €12.6bn with exports destined for 180 markets around the world.
Bord Bia is leading the charge as Irish food and drink producers vie for that place at the world’s vast culinary table.
The food and drink sector recorded the eighth consecutive year of export growth in 2017.
According to Bord Bia, it was boosted by increased output in key sectors, rising demand in some major markets, and, in line with the body’s market diversification strategy, the emergence of newer markets for Irish food and drink exporters.
In 2017, it is estimated that the value of food and drink exports increased by 13% (€1.5bn) to €12.6bn, representing growth of almost 60%, or €4.7bn since 2010.
The strongest performers in terms of export growth in 2017 were the dairy sector which comprises a third of the total, followed by seafood, pigmeat, sheepmeat, and live animals.
According to Bord Bia, strong competition and market conditions limited growth in the edible horticulture market whilst beef, poultry, and prepared foods also achieved lower levels of growth in relative terms.
It is a constant battle to relentlessly improve those numbers, hence the reason for such an Irish presence at events like SIAL.
The prospect of Brexit only serves to add an extra layer to the labyrinth of the world market.
Exports to the UK rose by an estimated 7% in 2017 to some €4.4bn despite the ongoing weakness of sterling. However, the share of exports to the UK has continued to fall despite the topline growth figure; the market share for exports to the UK is now estimated at 35%, down two points on last year, according to Bord Bia figures.
Exports to other EU countries have risen to over €4bn, accelerating last year’s growth rate, in line with Bord Bia’s market diversification strategy. This performance was mainly driven by strong dairy exports, which rose by over 40% to €1.2bn, as well as enhanced growth for seafood and pigmeat sales and continued strong presence of beverages and prepared foods.
Shipments of Irish food and drink to international markets grew by 17% to €4bn, underpinned by increases in sales of dairy, beverages, and prepared foods — reflective, Bord Bia said, of an increased focus on emerging markets.
Expansion was recorded for the year in the Middle East and Asia and Africa, where it grew by almost 30% to over €600m, and the US which recorded robust growth levels to exceed €1bn for the first time.
While Brexit impacts on all food and drink sectors, exporters from the so-called prepared consumer foods (PCF) category are particularly exposed, according to Bord Bia.
Prepared consumer foods, as defined by Foodwise 2025, differ from prepared foods in that it includes a wide range of the added value elements from other sectors, including value added meat, seafood, soft drinks, and dairy products.
Not surprisingly then, according to Bord Bia, PCF firms accounted for 30% of the Irish companies at SIAL, with eight of them participating for the first time.
While PCF exporters performed well in 2017 at €2.8bn, an increase of 12% on the previous year, the UK accounted for €1.8bn or 62%.
It means Europe has taken on added significance, with events like SIAL an essential component to the European expansion strategy.
While the EU is already home to 38% of our meat and 31% of our dairy exports, Bord Bia said its market prioritisation report identified real growth opportunities for PCF in Europe.
“This is evident for the first seven months of this year when Ireland exported €1.32bn in PCF to Europe with non-UK European markets delivering growth. In the first seven months of 2018 the value of PCF exports to Denmark alone have more than tripled compared to 2016 to €24.5m.
“Emerging eastern European countries have been very positive also —Hungary and Romania values have grown 400% and 347% respectively over the past two years though from low bases.
“France, Germany, and the Netherlands have delivered steady growth in recent years with potential growth in Belgium and Sweden also,” said the body.