Food sector boss has a full plate with Brexit, vegans, beef protests and even Saudi parenting tips

Global outlook: Bord Bia chief Tara McCarthy is keen to secure growth in new markets
Global outlook: Bord Bia chief Tara McCarthy is keen to secure growth in new markets
Ellie Donnelly

Ellie Donnelly

On a working trip to Saudi Arabia, Bord Bia chief executive Tara McCarthy once found herself in conversation with a senior Saudi official about stay at home parenting.

"He was having a reflective moment about the role of women in society in Saudi Arabia, and saying that his wife chose to stay at home," McCarthy says.

"He was very grateful about it; he felt his family was the better for that. And I said that it was a fabulous opportunity that his children had and that I was very proud that my children had that same opportunity, but it was my husband who had chosen to do that.

"So he gave me a little bit of a quizzical look on that one, that we had anything in common from that platform."

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However, for McCarthy, who says her email is "always on", she is "hugely grateful" that her husband, Didier, is a stay-at-home dad to their three children and has done "the huge heavy lifting of family life".

"It has allowed me from a professional perspective to be very singularly focused on trying to give my best at work, because I'm covered on the home front," she says.

Other than two years (2015-17) heading up Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), the State agency responsible for developing marine industries, the commerce graduate, who also has a masters in marketing, has been at Bord Bia since it was established.

After leaving college, McCarthy did a placement on what was the European Orientation Programme - a global graduate programme today - which was run by the EU in those days to promote language skills.

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"They sent you for three months to a language school and I learnt German. I got a placement in Germany and spent five years there. During that period, Bord Bia was formed and I moved there. From day one, I was part of the Bord Bia team and was a market ambassador," she says.

Next, McCarthy moved to Paris, where she became manager of the French office that was responsible for France and Belgium at that time.

After 10 years overseas, McCarthy returned to Ireland and led the consumer foods team at Bord Bia, before her two-year stint at BIM.

Back to the message of the day, overall McCarthy, now Bord Bia CEO, describes last year's performance of Irish food and drink as "extraordinary".

"When you think of the backdrop, it makes you realise what a big performance it was; when you look at the global tensions, when you look at the rhetoric around Brexit."

Nonetheless, it was a difficult year for the beef sector. Production fell 3pc and in the UK - our biggest export market for beef - there has been an overall market decline of 7pc.

As farmers, particularly those in the beef industry, face unprecedented challenges in the form of falling prices and Brexit uncertainty, McCarthy is more than aware of the task facing the sector and Bord Bia, the organisation in charge of promoting Ireland's food, drink and horticulture both at home and abroad.

"I would say the meat industry and the beef industry challenge that it is going through at the moment is a bigger one than just the UK," she says.

"I would say it's Brexit, and the political environment that we are facing into at the moment is hugely challenging.

"We are on a journey to diversification, nowhere more so than the meat industry which was even this year reducing their dependence on the UK market."

In order to counter the decline in the UK market, Bord Bia is looking to build preference for the product in established markets - such as the Netherlands, Italy and Germany - and investing in and understanding new markets, such as China.

McCarthy is pragmatic about the challenges Bord Bia will face in making inroads in the Asian market.

"In China, we are looking at building awareness of Ireland. They understand Europe and our objective is to explain to them where Ireland is as part of Europe, because they trust the standards of Europe. We are then looking to explain the distinctiveness of Ireland, the sustainability, the tractability elements," she says.

"There is no point in Bord Bia thinking that we are going to make everybody in China, or even a small number of people in China, eat like Irish people.

"What we are investing in doing is understanding how does China eat beef, and how can the cuts we present to the Chinese market be used in Chinese cuisine; [and] the regions [in China] that are most advanced from a budget perspective, from a willingness to engage perspective, from a distribution perspective - that are capable and able of absorbing that."

Bord Bia, she says, has to be future-proofing.

Along with Brexit, the beef sector is facing the challenge of declining consumption both in the UK and Europe. "When I look at the UK market and even the EU, we are going to be facing challenges, because if I look at consumption in those two markets, it is going to decline, so we have to be future-proofing."

All of this places further emphasis on expansion in international markets.

"There is no point in us looking at China the day the UK market is closed. We have to look at China the very first day it was open and well before that, as well as to build that market," McCarthy says.

"What we are trying to do is really be ahead rather than behind. Bord Bia is not the solution to Brexit. It was not our choice, but what we can do and what we are doing is optimising the cards that have been played, and what that means is clearly Ireland does have a unique dependence on the UK market, clearly the UK has a unique dependence on Ireland.

"We are looking to make it as difficult as possible for anyone not to choose Ireland, [and] British consumers consider Irish beef as local."

She adds that "you would want to be a very brave supermarket to delist a product that consumers trust".

"That is not to say there will [not] be a completely new dynamic coming in over future trading agreements and we are not blind or naive to say that can't be the case.

"There will be areas and we have to be very protective of what we do, but I would challenge anyone to say we should walk away from the UK."

Beef farmers here are angry. Last year, Independent Farmers of Ireland staged a protest outside Bord Bia headquarters in Dublin, as they claim the agency is "anti-farmer" and that the requirements it places on farmers are "unfair".

The Ploughing Championships were also the scene of protests at the Bord Bia tent, with farmers firmly laying a lot of blame for poor meat returns on Bord Bia's doorstep.

Bord Bia does not set the price that farmers get for their produce, and McCarthy says she empathises with the difficulties many of them find themselves in.

"There is no way I would say they are getting a great price for beef, they are not. And the fact that they are angry, I understand. I would love if the conversation we are having with [those] farmers was a different one because I genuinely believe that us working together is the only way Ireland will get out of this," she says.

"The conversation I would love us to be moving to is rather than hitting out - it is no benefit to hit out at each other here - is to get to the market and communicate why we deserve a premium.

"There is no one who is blessed with the right to have a premium; no commodity, no product in the world has the right to a premium.

"We have to fight for it every single day of the week; we have to differentiate ourselves."

McCarthy acknowledges Bord Bia needs to work "really hard" to earn that trust from farmers. However, she says "farmers [must] be open to hearing us as well".

On top of all this, with mounting concerns about climate change, vegetarianism and veganism are slowly becoming more popular, something that will also impact many of Bord Bia's stakeholders.

McCarthy is "quite passionate" about the challenge of mixed messages that are coming out on the issue, and "would not be in any way relaxed about our animal protein industry's need to communicate".

"I have no view on whether veganism is right or wrong or good or bad, but what I want to make sure, and I really feel strongly on this, is that when consumers make a choice they have the facts and then they can choose whatever they want to do," she says.

But what frustrates her is when she feels consumers are not making their food choices with facts.

"[When] they are making it because they read a social media blog or somebody on the radio said etcetera, and you don't know who that person was, I do think as an industry we have a lot of work to do to make sure we are helping consumers have the facts.

"I think there are no better products than our meat and dairy products, and I don't think supplements can make up for the supplements you get from eating the real products."

The challenge for the industry is how to get that message to consumers.

"The biggest work that has to be done by all of us in the industry is to get the facts out."

Last year will not go down as the easiest one for the food and drink sector in Ireland, and the outlook for 2020 is mixed.

With so much pressure, how does McCarthy, who says she has her phone with her "most of the time", switch off?

The answer is simple: family.

She concludes: "I find there is nothing more grounding than my kids and my family, so no matter how dramatic a day has been, you go home and you are still mammy, and that's where the play has to happen and that's where your mind has to be at that time."

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