In safe hands

Food security and sustainability considerations are creating opportunities for Irish food and drink producers, believes Claudia Saumell, Regional Director Middle East, Bord Bia (the Irish Food Board) and she speaks to us ahead of Gulfood 2021

Article appeared in issue 1, 2021

On the eve of Gulfood 2020,  magazine spoke with Claudia Saumell, Regional Director Middle East, to discuss the opportunities and challenges presented by the region. She spoke with optimism about the dynamic markets and the array of activities planned across the sectors and it was shaping up to be an exciting and action-packed year. Fast forward twelve months and, while 2020 didn’t go to plan, the region has proved fruitful for Irish food and drink producers. 

“Our Export Performance and Prospects 2020-2021 report has just been published and Irish food and drink exports to the Middle East show a 12% increase, a very strong performance given the year of difficulties that the industry had to go through, particularly for those companies supplying the foodservice sector,” Claudia tells me.


Five-star standard​

Foodservice is of particular importance to the Irish meat sector and it is a channel that offers a lot of opportunity. “Irish beef, because it is a high-end product, fits well in fine dining, in the five-star hotels and top-class restaurants, and there are so many – almost 12,000 in Dubai. The consumer in Dubai is very diverse, with over 200 different nationalities with different eating habits and income levels, but when it comes to out-of-home dining, particularly fine dining, that type of consumer will look for something different.”

Diners are willing to pay a higher price, she says, but the return must be an exquisite experience. “We believe that grass-fed Irish beef has an important place in this space, and we expect that fine dining will soon introduce that differentiation claim in their menus to offer an enticing proposition.” 

The next step is education and communication around Ireland’s farming practices and particularly Bord Bia’s recently launched Grass Fed Standard for both the trade and the consumer. “The office in Dubai has been working with top chefs in the region, and over the last two years we have intensified our relationship with them and participated in numerous events where we ensured Irish beef was strategically promoted and positioned as a top-class product.” These events included a butcher masterclass, the sponsorship of the UAE Chef of the Year with ProChef, and the digital campaign named PlateLikeAPro. “PlateLikeAPro involved eight chefs cooking Irish beef at home. It’s a way for them to offer something a bit different: foodservice has been so badly hit, everyone wants something a little different and we are giving them that opportunity with Irish grass-fed beef.”

Claudia expects to see this online engagement with the foodservice sector continue in tandem with in-person events. “Now we have a strong network of chefs that we know well. We are part of that community now, they know Irish beef, they know Bord Bia. I’d like to see events with live cooking or masterclasses, I think they are very well received. We had one last year at which we had an audience of 54 chefs. This continuous education and communication about Irish grass-fed beef is very important and we’ll continue rolling that out in 2021.” While Irish beef has been very successful in fine dining and there has been some success in retail, but it faces stiff competition. “We had a promotion in Saudi, that’s something we would like to see happening again this year. 

Finding the niche

Irish seafood is proving more successful in the retail channel and again, Claudia believes this is where offering a premium product allows Irish food producers to stand out in a very crowded marketplace. 

“You go to supermarkets in Dubai and the selection of fish is outstanding, from panga right up to organic salmon, there’s room for many types of fish and shellfish.” And there are many exporters jostling for pole position: “Looking at the seafood imports of UAE, Norway exported almost six thousand tonnes of salmon, Vietnam exported around 11 thousand tonnes of panga fish, and India exported 18 thousand tonnes of shrimps, to name a few.” Finding a point of difference is a strategy that Bord Bia has embarked on. 

“At the end of 2020, we began an initiative exploring the opportunities for Irish Frozen at Sea (FAS) prawns and pasteurised brown crab meat, and we did sample drops to key influential chefs and engaged with premium retailers. FAS prawns is a superb, high-quality product that should appeal to restaurants looking to diversify their menus by offering a top-quality shellfish from sustainable fishing practices. It would be fantastic to introduce these products and see them called out as Irish on menus. It’s about looking at what we have in Ireland and trying to fit in here and find the perfect buyer.” And in an unlikely twist, the pandemic has presented an opportunity to explore this further. “With Covid-19, demand from European markets such as Spain and Italy are weaker, so I think there is an opportunity for this in UAE. It’s such a credible story, people associate Ireland with green or clear waters, so it’s easy to share that message.” 

Milking it

Dairy remains without a doubt the strongest category in the Middle East: exports grew from €294 million in 2019 to €315m (est) in 2020. “What is attractive about the Irish dairy sector in the Middle East is the association between the product and the natural conditions where it comes from. Ireland is associated with green pastures and grass-fed animals and that gives Irish dairy products food security and delivers the story of sustainable production. Its availability, the service and the price confirm Ireland is an efficient dairy producer. 

“In the past, we have organised events to increase awareness of farmhouse cheeses from Ireland. We have partnered with a culinary academy in Dubai to deliver dairy masterclasses to bring that awareness of Irish dairy to key stakeholders. It’s about creating awareness of the origin of the product and the audience is mostly chefs and retail buyers.”


Security of supply 

Changing customer concerns and considerations due to Covid-19 can offer a pathway for Irish food and drink exporters. “Covid-19 has definitely changed the consumption habits of consumers all over the world and the impact is also noticeable here in the the UAE and wider Middle East. Bord Bia completed the Future Proofing toolkit at the end of 2020 to identify the new trends in the UAE emerging from the pandemic and they include the growing interest in healthy foods to boost the immune system; organic food, and safely packaged food. This is in response to the food security concerns from the end user who will be inclined to select from a well-known brand where the origin can be traced. Sustainable food is also another major trend that we will, little by little, see emerge in the UAE. We can highlight Ireland as a supplier of safe foods and building awareness of sustainable Irish food and drink products through the Origin Green story will be amongst our priorities. 

“Covid-19 accelerated food security concerns because the supply chain was interrupted. This was a moment for the consumer to think about where their food comes from, to look at the label, at who is behind that product. Sharing that our produce comes from sustainable sources is very impactful and something consumers look for.”

2021 will see the continuous collaboration with chefs through Chefs’ Irish Beef Club activities, masterclasses and engagement with the Best of Dubai and Bord Bia will be using this platform to promote and build awareness of Irish food. The UAE, unlike many other countries, has remained open for tourists, which has contributed to a growth rebound, particularly in the foodservice sector. If the rescheduled Expo 2020 goes ahead as planned in October this year a boost in demand can be expected. If Covid-19 restrictions continue to ease and group and gatherings are permitted across the Gulf region, normalised demands can be anticipated for Ramadan, falling on April 12 this year.