The impact of Covid-19 has presented the Irish food sector with an unprecedented challenge but embracing innovation is the key to surviving the current crisis.
The food and drink sector is dealing with widespread disruption to supply chains, the closure of export markets, changing consumer habits and economic uncertainty as a result of lockdown. Shay Hannon, manager of the Teagasc Prepared Consumer Food Centre (PCFC) in Ashtown, acknowledges the difficulties posed by current circumstances, but believes that the crisis can also produce opportunities.
“The food sector is one of the key drivers of the Irish economy, and we need to ensure that Irish food business are adequately prepared and supported during this difficult time,” he says. “The current situation presents an unprecedented challenge to the food sector in Ireland, and these challenges call for innovation.”
The Teagasc PCFC is a state-of-the-art facility with cutting edge equipment that can provide food businesses with the expertise and technical resources that they need to survive. Funded by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, it was established to support the food industry in Ireland in response to Brexit.
The focus has now shifted to the challenges posed by Covid-19 and the centre can be a vital resource for companies looking to emerge from the shadow of the pandemic. Its capabilities include new product development and food innovation, nutritional analysis and quality, food safety, sensory analysis and quality, and research around advanced processing technology.
“Things are tough at the moment,” admits Shay. “Companies are trying their best, and for the large part, food companies have stayed open. However, we really need to look at the next steps now and be forward thinking in terms of how we can adapt.”
The lockdown has dealt a severe blow to the foodservice sector, forcing many providers to seek out new retail markets, or adapt their offering to meet changing consumer demands.
“While the foodservice sector has been severely impacted over the past number of weeks, retail demand here is up, and food companies are starting to re-think how they can adapt. In particular, companies are looking at product reformulation, shelf life extension and revised packaging formats to help adapt to changing consumer demands and target new markets.
“What I’m challenging a lot of the companies to do at the moment is think outside the box and look at what potential new retail markets they can look into,” he adds. “So potentially taking what were previously foodservice products and trying to adapt them into a retail market.”
The Teagasc PCFC has already worked with many small, medium and large companies in Ireland to help them to develop new products and solve scientific challenges. It can cater for everyone from budding entrepreneurs to major manufacturers by providing the expertise and technical support that they need.
Shay Hannon notes that companies that embraced innovation during the last economic downturn were primed to reap the benefits when the recovery started.
“My concern for food companies in Ireland is that they’ll forget about the innovation pathway and they’ll become too focused on the short term,” he explains.
“For companies that want to progress out of this crisis, they really do have to look at innovation and that’s where the Teagasc PCFC can be of support.”
The centre’s modern analytical and sensory laboratories can characterise foods in terms of nutritional, compositional, microbial and sensory profiles to facilitate complete product and process development. Not only can manufacturers avail of the PCFC’s technical infrastructure and cutting-edge equipment, they can also liaise with leading researchers and industry experts from Teagasc.
Businesses can also get advice on everything from compliance to procedural safety to operational efficiency, making it an invaluable resource during these testing times.
About 50pc of the companies engaged in ongoing projects with the Teagasc PCFC received funding from Enterprise Ireland and funding is also available through the likes of Science Foundation Ireland and other bodies.
While the outlook for many Irish food businesses may seem bleak at the moment, Shay points to the sector’s proven track record of resilience in the face of adversity.
“In Ireland, we have a fantastic reputation globally for the excellent quality of our food produce and behind this lies the resilience of Irish food businesses to overcome challenges. We need to uphold our high standards and continue to innovate and maintain the highest level of quality possible.
“In the PCFC, we will support food businesses but also help identify gaps in their food development pipeline, to ask: are their different markets they could be looking at? Is there a more efficient way they can make their current product? There are always areas where a company can improve and Teagasc is here to support and help.”
The Prepared Consumer Food Centre encourages businesses to engage directly with its staff and to access the facilities and know-how available within the centre. For more information, contact the PCFC manager, Shay Hannon, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the PCFC website.