05 Jan Bringing Ireland to life through the natural goodness of its food and drink
Tara McCarthy, CEO, Bord Bia, reveals why Ireland is so far ahead of the game when it comes to provable sustainability in agricultural products
Ireland’s food industry is quite remarkable, with the country of just 5 million being able to feed over 25 million. Ireland is the largest net exporter of dairy ingredients, beef and lamb in Europe, and the largest exporter of powdered infant formula in Europe, producing around 10 percent of that global product. Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, is tasked with bringing the country’s food, drink and horticulture to the world, and enabling the growth and sustainability of its producers. How would you summarize Ireland’s agricultural uniqueness, strengths and capabilities?
Food and agriculture is Ireland’s largest indigenous industry. We view our soil, our grass, our weather as our very unique natural resources, that we’re bringing out to the world. We’re trying to build the credentials of that natural resource and explain the uniqueness of what we have in Ireland, that so many other countries would love to have and that we have so much of.
Ireland has strong export credentials already, as we’re exporting to over 180 different countries around the world. We have an agricultural system that’s hugely aligned from policy to company to state infrastructure to resources. Being a small country has allowed us to do that. Our food industry is now exporting €13 billion of exports around the world. That’s not by accident; that has been a steadfast commitment for many years. The last decade saw over 60-percent growth in this industry.
What are some of the biggest challenges faced by the sector today?
Economic uncertainty is huge at the moment, driven by COVID-19 and trade tensions, yet Ireland is very resilient. Ireland was very resilient when it bounced back from the 2008 crisis—but this current crisis is economically much more damaging, with the whole globe going into recession now, besides a few countries. Such economic uncertainty will have an impact on the food industry and on consumer purchasing globally.
In addition to that, trade tensions have also accumulated, with the new tariffs on European products going into the U.S., tariffs on U.S. products coming into Europe, with Brexit a manifestation of further trade tensions and uncertainty around globalization, and the questioning around free movement of goods and people around the globe. COVID-19 is probably questioning movement of people, as much as trade has been questioning the movement of goods.
The third big driver of change is the movement toward sustainability, which is going to impact people’s choices of what they eat, how they live, where they work. Not just in terms of food, it’s going to really have an impact on the way that we want to be.
Each of these three big forces brings a positive and a challenge for the food industry. They provide us with huge opportunities but, if we don’t navigate them well, they can provide a huge challenge to us.
What are Bord Bia’s current priorities for tackling these three big challenges?
We have four priorities to our strategy. Our fundamental raison d’être is for growth: we are searching for growth, in our home market and our international market consistently. We believe that the world is full of growth opportunities. In order to discover that growth, we have our second priority, which is around insight. It’s only through insight that we will power that growth. Our third priority is around reputation, because people buy from people they trust and that is our reputation—building awareness or creating proof points of why you should trust us is fundamental to any opportunity to feed that growth. Our fourth priority is around people, because we fundamentally believe that our food industry has to compete for talent. It has to get and attract the best people to be most excited about this fabulous industry; if the best minds choose the food industry, then we will come up with the best results to the challenges that we, as a globe, face.
Bord Bia uses that repertoire of priorities to approach every single problem that we see. When we saw the recession coming, we started to look at insight and what consumers were thinking straight away and how COVID would affect their shopping behaviors. Interestingly, we found out that people are investing more in food in a recession, which creates a double opportunity, because COVID is making people more conscious about their health, more willing to invest in a sustainable solution to their health. They are looking to build their immunity, to ensure they stay in shape and so on.
Natural food is a win in that space, as people are looking for food they can trust, food that’s traceable, that’s as close to nature as possible and so on. That’s a win-win for our Irish food industry, as people generally associate Ireland with green, with a slower, non-intensive food production system, with grass-based production, and that’s where they’re going to lean into in this space. Regardless of their economic status, people are willing to spend more on food, on food that’s good for them and that’s good for nature.
When it comes to Brexit, we’ve been preparing for this since 2016, and we have unashamedly flagged it as one of our biggest challenges and biggest priorities. We felt that Ireland was uniquely exposed to it as the U.K. is our closest, nearest neighbor, to which we are very culturally aligned from a food production perspective, from a consumption taste profile, language profile and so on. The U.K. is Ireland’s biggest customer for food products. When Brexit happened, we focused on the skill set that was going to be required to navigate this new change. We had to bring that skill set back from pre-1973 when there were trade restrictions between Ireland and the U.K.
So we spent these last four years learning about customs, learning about the documentation, the training systems that need to go into that and putting that infrastructure in place. We also spent that time really engaging with our customers in the U.K., so that they never felt that we were walking away from the U.K. market, that we were consistent and deliberate in our messaging, that we saw them as remaining as our number-one destination. We wanted to give them no reason to doubt that commitment. We’ve been doing that successfully, as reflected in our export figures to the U.K. of over €4 billion again last year.
Notwithstanding that, from a risk-management perspective we’ve also really focused on market diversification over the last four years, so that while we have grown in our exports to the U.K. since the Brexit vote, our other exports continue to grow also. As that market continues to grow, more growth has happened elsewhere. Between 2016 and 2020, we had 10 percent of our growth in the U.K. and 90 percent in other markets. The commitment to the U.K. was steadfast and real, but the urgency went into market diversification and growing other opportunities for the industry.
We’ve considered the last four years as learning years, and we’re viewing this year as embedding the new ways of working, before we move on to optimize the opportunities and the ways of working. We are the U.K.’s closest neighbor and the majority of UK consumers views us as their natural breadbasket; they are very familiar with our food production systems. The U.K. requires imports; it’s not a self-sufficient country in the products that we mainly produce, meat and dairy products. Ireland can deliver on every metric that the British consumer values, from the standards of production, the traceability systems, to the commitment to sustainability. They see Ireland as a trusted partner, hence their commitment to their Irish supply chain.
Promoting sustainability in the sector is one of your priorities. How does Ireland stand out in this area?
Without a doubt, without any competition, sustainability is the biggest driver of change and opportunity in the food industry today. Even wider than the food industry, it’s the biggest driver of change on the globe today, changing how financial decisions are made, changing where people want to work, changing consumers’ purchasing decisions and so on. Products’ environmental credentials are influencing more and more. Back in 2008, we saw consumer behavior move away from organic when price became the only game in town. This has evolved in the last decade, where sustainability has moved up the ladder within the top drivers of choice and is listed as top-five criteria for purchasing, which is a huge message to all of us.
Ireland has been on the sustainability journey for almost a decade now, and has been ahead of the game. What we’re finding now is that sustainability brings a huge opportunity and, if ignored, provides a huge threat to the food and drink industry. It’s also a huge responsibility to translate really high-level, heavy scientific insight into consumable elements that are relevant to allow consumers to make informed decisions. Sometimes the consumer has been ahead of the industry—like in the case of plastics—and sometimes the industry has been ahead of the consumer.
Can you introduce Ireland’s Origin Green program and how would you measure the progress made on the path to sustainability since its introduction?
In Ireland, we’ve been privileged with our production methods, our centuries of tradition, the wealth of our soil and our climate. The way we produce food has finally aligned with what consumers are demanding and with the global sustainability agenda: our time has come. What we’ve been doing is creating scientific proof points behind that, to consistently build on the consumer’s voracious demand for proof.
Our Origin Green Program is a sustainability initiative on a national level. Individual companies have sustainability programs and try and look at their individual supply chain. Ireland has done it as a country, which is absolutely unique. It’s over and above the individual companies. No other country in the world has been able to follow our example on this. That’s the advantage of being a smaller country. Policy and commerce come together in a unique way in Ireland, which doesn’t happen in other countries where their agri-industry isn’t viewed as strategically important proportionately.
We’ve had traceability schemes traditionally, but what we’ve now done is to use that infrastructure to create sustainability schemes. We have 53,000 farms that are members of our program, 95 percent of our producing farmers and 96 percent of our dairy farmers, so basically everybody is involved here. We are visiting every single one of those farms, taking carbon footprints on those farms, tracking this data, and we can build timelines against this data to measure progress, to measure areas for improvement. We’ve got over 260,000 carbon footprints. We’ve also been able to bring in our processing industry and have over 270 CEOs that sign up to this program. We’re creating a new standard identifying who the gold members are, who are going to be above and beyond what could normally be expected of a sustainable company. That’s been a fantastic initiative in bringing people’s ambition even further up, as that performance is now being recognized publicly.
We’ve also piloted in with our retail and food service operators so that four of our top-five retailers in Ireland are now members of our Origin Green program. They committed to sustainable sourcing, to sustainable practices and to investing back into the community as well. The kind of data sets that we have now allow us to give a very aligned perspective on proof points to consumers.
Scientists from the Science Agency for Farm Advice in Ireland (Teagasc) work with us to create the science behind where a cow’s calories come from and how many calories she needs at different times of the year, at different phases in her life, and we are managing and studying that from a scientific perspective. We are looking at that in terms of how Ireland performs on its grass, and then looking at what other supplements the animal may get, be that from concentrates, for health reasons at different times of the year and so on. And what we’re now able to verify and prove for a consumer is that through 95 percent of that animal’s inputs, the calories she takes in come from grass. We have that, systematically verified and proven.
What we can then do, and we’re introducing now, is a methodology of going into every single factory to ensure segregation and ensure that the product that lands on a consumer’s shelf is proven to be a grass-fed product. In some ways, consumers always felt it was grass-fed and never had any doubt about it, but what our infrastructure is now able to do is make sure that, if they ever did have a question about it, we can give them the data. We can show and prove it. It’s science enabling nature, so that we can now do what we were always doing and what we were very comfortably naturally doing. But in addition, we can bring to those scientifically hungry consumers who are consistently looking for the data behind claims, we can now scientifically prove those to them as well.
And this, again, is evidence of our continuous investment in those trust-proof points that today’s environment, and the world in general, is asking more and more for—that continuous investment to say: can you trust us and how can we prove it? We didn’t need St. Patrick’s day to bring to life for consumers that we were green, but I guess what we’re now looking to do is to be able to prove it every other day of the year and to prove it with science.
Can you summarize Bord Bia’s role and contribution to the sector? How instrumental is your organization in terms of enhancing productivity, innovation, competitiveness and transformation in the industry?
Our role is about identifying and supporting growth opportunities for our industry, through insight, though building the reputation and communicating that reputation, and by finding partnerships throughout the world to enable all of that to happen. We see ourselves as a bridge to enhance local and international collaboration—whether it’s translating the science of our partner Teagasc to the market requirement, or designing grass-fed solutions that have scientific endorsement, independently accredited.
We bring Ireland to life throughout the world. We ensure that the food brand “Ireland” stands for the natural goodness that our soil creates or seas provide, and we do that in a way that’s providing a sustainable return for our producers and growers, and making sure that it’s a safe and sustainable product for our consumers.
One of your goals is to export a value of €19 billion by 2025. What are some of the key growth markets that you’re seeing at the moment for Irish products and how are you securing opportunities in those?
There are 180 different countries around the world that we’re currently exporting to. However, the opportunities in those 180 markets are not all equal. What we’ve done is a complete examination of all of the countries to which we export or could potentially be exporting to, by sector as well—so that we’re now identifying the top-30 potential markets for dairy, for beef, for seafood, as well as the top 15 and 5. We created a program aligned with industry and government as to how we target those markets.
We would have been the first country in Europe to have access to the U.S. and were among the very first countries in China to have beef market access as well. That’s because of very aligned and focused approach to where the opportunities are, and having policymakers and industry aligned to that as well. We are now looking at building the insight behind those markets, so that we can understand their nuances, and then what are the elements of our brand that work most. We research what’s meaningful in each market to understand what will deliver a premium return.
For example, in markets like Germany, Sweden and North Europe in general, food safety is a given. Next, consumers are looking for something natural and their next priority is animal welfare. So when we’re bringing our story of Ireland to life in those markets, we design our messaging around those proof points. In China, consumers are looking for a much more strengthened proposition around food safety and so we start with the food-safety credentials first, then bring in our sustainability messaging and animal-welfare messaging. This is all built on insight, research, and speaking to and understanding the market.
We’ve opened offices in a number of these markets now. Interestingly, we have identified two platinum markets: China and the U.K. A further priority market is the U.S. We’ve significantly invested in more people and offices in those areas where we expect to see most growth, mostly the Asian markets and in the U.S.
With its new administration in place, what kind of new opportunities do you foresee arising in the U.S.?
Ireland has had a really positive opportunity in the U.S., notwithstanding the challenges of the tariffs. The American consumer is very open to Irish food and drink. Our exports to U.S. have been significantly growing. The U.S. is our second-largest market at present, valued over €1 billion this year. 42 percent of our food products exported to the U.S. are alcohols—namely our whiskies, cream liquors and so on—and then come our dairy products. Despite a 25-percent tariff rise, our dairy exports to the U.S. increased in value by 12 percent in 2019 and by another 11 percent in 2020. We’re now at €380 million in dairy exports to the U.S., powered by the phenomenal Kerry Gold brand.
Our grass-fed credentials are key in the U.S. market. Ireland’s natural food positioning and proposition is very meaningful to the U.S. consumer, and we see that as a fantastic further growth opportunity. We were among the first countries in Europe to get access to the American beef market. That’s grown significantly from a small base, as we started at nothing, but just last year we saw our exports reach €34 million, which was an increase of 74 percent on the previous year. We are working really well with that market, building our awareness and bringing our product proposition to life, which is a different product to the domestic U.S. product, which is a grain-fed market. Bringing that grass-fed Irish beef to life is really an exciting opportunity for us.
Our alcohol sector is going through a phenomenal change at the moment, with many new distilleries opening up and the whiskey category coming to a new revival. We’ve been investing significantly in that sector, with much of that investment targeted toward the U.S. market. We’ve been building a program of information to help American consumers understand what’s happening in the Irish whiskey market, what’s new, what the techniques are that are being used in Ireland and to introduce new offerings to them. The connoisseurship concept is coming into spirits with multiple smaller artisanal products coming to life. It’s a fabulous opportunity for that connoisseurship and craftsmanship to come to life and Ireland is going to be at the heart of that. We’re investing now in virtual whiskey tourism, so that people can have the opportunity to virtually visit those new distilleries and understand those brands and then source those products locally.
You mentioned that one of your challenges is to grow the reputation of Irish food products. What are some of your strategies for promoting Irish food products globally?
We fundamentally begin with insight, as we look to understand what the consumer is valuing and we then build our propositions from a consumer-centric approach. The food industry in the past has been very production oriented, so what we’ve been looking to understand over the last decade is what the consumers expect, what’s important to them and what consumer is right for Ireland. We believe not every consumer would want to source from Ireland and we’re not looking for global dominance. But there are consumers who appreciate hugely the type of foods that we make and they’re the consumers that we’re targeting.
There are consumers for whom food is a very important part of their lives and there are other consumers for whom food is calories. We’re obviously targeting the former. We’re also targeting consumers who are searching for natural foods, who are looking and who appreciate that partnership food has with nature, who want to know the credentials and the traceability of their food, and who want to really get involved with it, who may want to understand farm families versus industrial production. It’s giving them the proof points of that, at scale at the same time. It’s making it a very accessible product but, at the same time, it’s a product that is living the life that they’re aiming for. We’re seeing that increasingly across the world.
How are you promoting the use of new technologies and the development of agritech in Ireland? Do you think this can enhance safety, transparency and sustainability in the production chain?
We work in partnership with others for most of that, including with Teagasc, the government research agency working closely with scientists. Any claim that we make has to be science-based. Besides, COVID-19 has demanded that all of us think digital, bringing a new skill to the industry. That’s why we’ve launched a digital program for our industry recently, looking at the digitization of marketing strategies. What we’re learning is that, even when it comes to meat and seafood, consumers are a little bit more reluctant to shop online. Yet, COVID is forcing a behavior upon people where they are shopping more online, so we’re reviewing our market diversification agenda to ensure that we understand, for every single sector, the investment required to tell its unique message online and to communicate that in the right way to consumers.
In a recent speech, you said, “2020 was a pivotal year of learning for all of us, and 2021 will be even more significant in terms of how we apply these learnings to rebuild and drive growth in new and emerging markets.” What is your outlook for 2021 and beyond?
We believe that the driving forces for food economics are still very strong and that the Irish food industry has shown its agility and resilience. In 2019, the Irish food industry had record-breaking exports at €13.2 billion, so to reach €13 billion in exports in 2020 during a global pandemic is a phenomenal performance for our industry. That’s been driven by our growth in dairy and our capturing of value in many other sectors, notwithstanding the closure of our food-service market for nine months of that year. Our international markets grew significantly, which makes us quite optimistic that, in post-COVID times, the food industry will do very well for us.
Our food industry has proven hugely agile: standing on its two feet when so many other sectors around the world collapsed. Our food industry was actually the go-to industry, because it maintained its focus on production, it maintained its focus on filling orders and so on. On that basis, we’re really quite confident about our food industry and its ability to go forward. Yet our absolute priority is ensuring that we’re capturing value from the market, rather than just delivering to the market, as the sustainability of our producers and farmers is at the heart of everything we do. We want to ensure that the consumers that we engage with value that.
What is you final message to our Newsweek readers?
The Irish food industry is in a very exciting place. More and more consumers around the world view natural food as the solution to the challenges they face, which ensures a positive outlook for the Irish food industry and its strong natural credentials.
We believe that the food industry is a really exciting place to work and we’ve been investing in the talent that goes into the food industry for the last eight years, in a quite purposeful way. Testament to the excitement that the food industry is generating, we were recruiting for two of our graduate programs over the last couple of months, and we had 60 opportunities for further education linked in with experience and food. We received over 3,000 applications from students in Ireland applying for those 60 positions—that means one out of 16 Irish graduates is willing to be involved with a Bord-Bia course. More and more of our young people are looking to work in the food industry, which is viewed as a future-focused industry that is bringing excitement.