Optimistic note struck at IGFS Annual Lecture

The IGFS Annual Lecture at Riddel Hall on Tuesday 27 March 2018 was a great success, with a capacity audience made up of representatives from the Northern Ireland agri-food industry, the public sector and academia.

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Many local agri-food companies were represented including Dunbia, Dawn Meats, Finnebrogue, Mash Direct, Irwin’s Bakery and Dale Farm alongside public-sector bodies such as AFBI, safefood, Belfast City Council and DAERA. Also in the audience were the Acting Vice-Chancellor for Queen's University, Professor James McElnay; Pro-Vice-Chancellor for MHLS faculty, Professor Chris Elliott; and Director of IGFS, Professor Nigel Scollan. The evening was chaired by Ian Marshall, Business Development Manager at IGFS and a former President of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, which was also represented at the event.

Rob Collins, the MD of Waitrose, gave the keynote, beginning with the teaser, “Can you maintain a strong, ethical compass in such a ferociously competitive landscape?” The rest of his lecture attempted to answer this, with many examples of how Waitrose’s commitment to high ethical standards including the environment, animal welfare, health and nutrition, and good terms and conditions for staff, may not always make financial sense in the short-term but was also the USP of the retailer, which occupies 5% of the UK grocery market.

He talked about the philosophy of the company and how it had strayed little from its beginnings as the John Lewis company over 150 years ago – it still has a constitution; staff are still ‘partners’ in the company, rather than employees, and share in the risks and rewards.

When touching on Brexit, Mr Collins said it was an “opportunity to show the whole world that Britain’s farming and food standards are second to none”. He added: “We will not be in a race to the bottom. Post-Brexit, we need to maintain our leadership in food and farming.”

And despite “ferocious” competition between rival supermarkets, Mr Collins was “optimistic” about the food retail sector.

“Innovation inspires people,” he said. “People want a deeper experience – Britain has a shared love of great food. In 2017 we launched 2,500 new lines and we are building a Waitrose innovation centre this summer. Every time we innovate, it translates into increased demand and increased spending.”

Some of that innovation included Omega 3 enriched chicken, supplied by Devenish Nutrition in partnership with Moy Park Chicken. All chicken sold at Waitrose comes from Moy Park and, by extension, Northern Ireland farmers. Waitrose uses a number of NI suppliers, including Glenarm Salmon.

The Chairman of Devenish Nutrition, Owen Brennan – who is to receive an honorary doctorate from Queen’s later this year – and the Chief Executive of Moy Park Chicken, Janet McCollum also addressed the event, and participated in a Q&A session with the audience. 

In her talk, Janet McCollum said the “NI agri-food industry punches above its weight”. She said Moy Park had invested over £10 million in research and development in recent years, and thanked IGFS for its “outstanding research expertise”. She said change was an integral part of the agri-food sector, and Brexit merely intensified that. “You can never stand still in this business,” she said. “From our humble beginnings in Moygashel to having 12,000 employees across Europe, the biggest lesson we have learned is that consumer wellbeing is core.”

Owen Brennan said that despite all the “gloominess” about food-security and Brexit, there were “lots of reasons to be optimistic”. He added: “The generation coming through now – they are much more informed about food, they are much more aware. They will not allow standards to slip. We have to have confidence in them – you have to move forward while looking forward.”