Awards help Michele’s quest for local food

Campaigner Michele Shirlow was justifiably delighted to see food from local producers endorsed last week for its premium quality and outstanding flavours in the UK industry’s most influential competition.

By Sam Butler
Saturday, 7th November 2020, 5:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 12th November 2020, 11:09 am
The multi-award winning Mash Direct family team: Lance, Martin, Tracy and Jack Hamilton
The multi-award winning Mash Direct family team: Lance, Martin, Tracy and Jack Hamilton

Michele, from Ballygowan, who is chief executive of Food NI, the body responsible for promoting local food and drink here, explains: “The awards achieved by three companies - Dunbia in Dungannon, Downpatrick’s Finnebrogue Artisan and Mash Direct from Comber - are immensely significant because they showcased the excellence of our food for discerning shoppers throughout Great Britain.

“This is hugely important because Britain is our single most important market for food. Shoppers there buy around £3 billion of our food and drink every year. It’s essential, therefore, that we do everything possible to develop sales there especially at a time when there are serious concerns about our trade with this dynamic marketplace.

“Another important aspect of the awards is that they demonstrate our key role as a supplier of original food and drink to all the main supermarkets and discount retailers in Britain. We cannot afford to allow this substantial business to be inhibited in any way,” adds Michele, a key driver in the hugely successful Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink in 2016.

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Michele Shirlow of Food N

Sainsbury’s had already warned that post-Brexit bureaucracy could reduce the amount of Northern Ireland meat and fish in the stores. It could also impact adversely on overall sales of our food to retailers there.

The Quality Food Awards, the Food NI chief continues, were “the most prestigious competition for food and drink products in the UK”. “They recognise and celebrate the very best in retail food products currently on sale in UK supermarkets. Shoppers here may not realise that foods they buy under supermarket labels are produced here. While our foods often appear under their own labels, others, especially meats, are included in supermarket own brands,” she adds.

Dunbia, our biggest beef processor, achieved major success in the awards for premium meat products – sirloin steak and burgers – for Lidl, the German discounter. Finnebrogue Artisan was recognised for its nitrite free bacon and reduced fat sausages and Mash Direct for its unique beer battered chips for

Morrisons and other stores. With an impressive list of over a thousand entries and a robust judging process, the awards have long been coveted by UK companies.

Michele continues: “These latest awards follow the outstanding achievements of our food companies, especially smaller and artisan enterprises, in highly influential competitions such as the UK Great Taste Awards, Great British Food and Blas na hEireann Irish National Food Awards.”

Food NI’s focus, she explains, is on “creating awareness among shoppers here of the quality of our food and drink and thereby encourage a great many more people to give preference to the purchase of quality local products.

“Doing so, it’s worth bearing in mind, is also good for the overall wellbeing of the local economy. It’s beneficial for farmers who provide quality ingredients and for food processors. It safeguards existing employment and creates new job opportunities for local people,” she says.

“We have exceptional food all around us in Northern Ireland. And our food and drink really does deserve our support. The growth in farm shops, delis, butchery businesses and smaller grocery stores here also means our food is easier to buy than ever before. And research also indicates that a steadily growing number of consumers have been opting for these shops during the pandemic,” adds the Food NI leader.

Research by Barclays certainly backs this up. The international bank found 50 percent of shoppers said that buying from local grocery stores helped them better understand where their food came from and the people producing it. And it was also better for the local environment.

“Bear in mind too that many of our award winning food companies, which are farm based, Mash Direct being a great example, began their retail journey at farmers’ markets before graduating to retailers here, in Britain and the Republic. Many have also joined us at food shows that we took part in with Invest NI in Britain and Ireland long before the advent of the cruel Covid-19 pandemic,” she adds.

Those events generated worthwhile exposure and demonstrate the appetite there for our food and drink.

“Our food and drink, as recent awards demonstrate, really is world class. And we need to do everything possible to safeguard that quality and business success now and in the future. I would, therefore, urge families here to back our most successful and dynamic agri-food industry by giving priority this Christmas to our outstandingly tasty local food and drink. It’s also great value for money,” adds Michele.

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