Northern Ireland’s artisan food sector has been given a £88,000 (€99,138) boost from Invest NI funding to help increase the commercial viability of some of the region’s best niche products.

The money will go towards a new Queen’s University Belfast research project to support Northern Ireland’s artisan food sector and was granted through the Agri-Food Quest Funding Scheme.

It will also allow the region’s agri-food companies to work collaboratively with researchers to create commercial opportunities for these niche products.

Food and drink is already a £5 billion (€5.62 billion) industry in Northern Ireland, exporting products to over 70 countries. However, the potential is said to be much bigger.

Special status

The project will also support access to special EU trademarks and quality marks.

Dr. Simone Cerroni from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, who is is leading the project, said: “Artisan products are a relatively under researched market across Northern Ireland despite the number of high-quality and number of products available.

“Through this project, we will support local industry to access further business and marketing opportunities. We aim to support businesses to obtain EU quality logos such as the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) and Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) status, and fully exploit marketing opportunities that such logos may generate.

We think this research could really help to put some of the local businesses on the global food map.

The statuses are designed to protect niche products, such as the Armagh bramley apple, Comber potato and Lough Neagh Eel – all of which have PGI status.

Export potential

Northern Ireland’s food export market is mainly associated with meat, dairy and vegetable products – although a number of high-quality artisan products are also exported.

The region’s artisan specialities include estate produced single breed beef, traditionally-made yoghurts, wild caught fish species and regional speciality bakery products – such as soda and potato bread.

Stephane Durand, director of the Agri-Food Quest Competence Centre based at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “There are a number of local and EU-wide resources available to local producers that would increase producers’ visibility and in-turn increase market sale. For example, obtaining access to a number of EU quality logos would boost the profile of high-quality artisan food products.

“However, only a few NI products have taken advantage of these designations.”

Further investment

It comes as added-value meat supplier Bawnbua Foods invests £500,000 (€562,374) in advanced technology at its sites in Co. Armagh and Manchester.

The expansion will allow the firm to build on previous investments into a technique known as ‘sous-vide’ that involves vacuum cooking food in airtight plastic pouches under water.

Bawnbua supplies both chilled and frozen pre-cooked meats to international supermarket chains and specialist food retailers.

It will now be able to also supply a range of slow-cooked, minced and diced meats for use in specialist food manufacturing firms making ready-meals, pies and similar products.

The segment is understood to have been worth over £2 million (€2.25 million) in sales to date to Bawnbua; however, the company anticipates demand will grow further over the next two years as food manufacturers continue to look for ways to reduce complexity in their operations.