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Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I fully support the promotion and purchase of local food, and my Department has carried out a range of actions to underpin that. For example, my Department administers the regional food programme, which aims to promote quality regional food. Under that programme, assistance is available to develop and expand profitable and sustainable markets by encouraging better co-operation and communication between all sectors of the food industry. That programme complements the work that my Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have been doing to implement the recommendations of the ‘Fit for Market: Report of the Food Strategy Group: July 2004’.
I fully support the work of the newly formed Food Promotion Northern Ireland Limited (FPNI Ltd), an industry group representing a range of sectors that are taking forward and funding a domestic marketing campaign. FPNI Ltd aims to provide the highest levels of transparency for customers and consumers in identifying food and drink products. The funding made available under the processing and marketing grants will also provide better capacity.
The Livestock and Meat Commission is responsible for providing support to various sectors of the livestock industry, which is primarily achieved through strategic marketing initiatives that are complementary to the activities of the commercial operators within the sector — the Love Beef campaign was one of the most recent examples.
My Department is also contributing to the success of the renaissance of Atlantic food authenticity and economic links (RAFEAL) project, which aims to encourage local authentic food producers to develop new markets and thereby help to promote the use of local food as a firm foundation for public health, as well as ensuring that local food is brought to the attention of consumers.
I also intend to write to public-procurement bodies in the North, reminding them of the high animal welfare and productivity standards of locally-produced food. I continue to stress the benefits of the local food supply to the major retailers.
Will the Minister clarify that all food products sourced and used by DARD are produced in Northern Ireland? I mean those products that can be produced here — I know that the pineapple season in Fermanagh and South Tyrone was hit by the wet summer. [Laughter.] Will the Minister assure the House that all products purchased by DARD are — as far possible — produced locally? She will remember that that was one of the Ulster Farmers’ Union’s five recommendations, and we do not want another one to slip off the list.
Thank you, John. That supplementary question was nearly as long as my answer [Laughter.] Only the best for you, John. [Laughter.]
EU legislation prevents the procurement of food by public-sector bodies being based solely on local supply. Therefore, the challenge is to work with suppliers to help them to compete more successfully. DARD staff continue to provide technical support and advice to individual farmers or processors, producer groups or co-operatives, large and small, to help them to engage in public-sector contracts.
I have approved a new processing and marketing scheme under the rural development programme. Staff from the Loughrey campus of CAFRE have supported the central procurement directorate by providing advice on the specifications for public-food contracts. In addition, they have had an input into the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety’s Fit for Future initiative, which aims to improve the nutritional quality of food in hospitals.
The short answer to the Member’s question is yes; I am doing all that I can to ensure that all Departments — particularly those with the big spending power, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety — engage in widespread public procurement wherever possible. I have written to the Health Minister and the Education Minister to encourage them to do that. My Department wants to see local produce on the menu, whether it is in Departments, Civil Service buildings, our hospitals or our schools. As the Member stated, that is one of the UFU’s five recommendations, and I assure him that it has not slipped off the list.
There are fairly strict Government rules about what can be done. However, I recently attended the Anuga trade fair for food and beverages in Cologne in support of the local red meat industry, and our local meat-processing companies used that fair to meet current overseas customers and many potential importers. It was important to attend that fair in order to send the clear message to international buyers that our food and produce are high quality and that we are ready for business and to promote our produce on the European and world stage.
The RAFAEL project is funded by INTERREG III and is aimed at encouraging local authentic food producers to develop new markets. The main focus of our project, which was centred in the west, is to encourage and support local food producers and processors to develop and compete successfully for business in the public sector, particularly in hospitals and schools. Figures from Age Concern show that many people are suffering from malnutrition before they go into hospital, so it is important that the food that they receive in hospital is of the highest quality in order to help them through their convalescence. In that respect, the lack of food miles in those products — as well as the support that the RAFAEL project provided to the local food industry — is important, and I want it to be rolled out across the Six Counties.