Northern Ireland produces enough to feed its entire population five times over, a supplier has said after a Stormont minister claimed hospitals and schools faced the prospect of being unable to feed patients and children.
UP Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots said his dramatic claim was informed by a meeting with suppliers.
“It was made very clear to us by the suppliers to both hospitals and schools that if the current arrangement for supermarkets isn’t extended in a few months’ time that they will not be able to supply our hospitals and schools with food,” Mr Poots told BBC NI’s Nolan Show.
“Seriously, are we going to have a situation where our hospitals and schools are not able to feed the children at school, they’re not able to feed their patients?”
Food industry representatives said there is little chance that NI will run out of food, while wholesalers are upbeat about the supply chain, and rival politicians accused the minister of “scaremongering” as part of a DUP push to overturn the NI protocol.
The Departments of Education and Health said there are no major issues with supplies.
Henderson Wholesale, one of the largest local suppliers, said it has engaged “constructively with DAERA and other relevant bodies to ensure disruption to the supply chain is minimised”.
“We are currently dealing with some delays, not shortages,” a spokesperson said. “The group has been pro-actively building stocks of ambient and frozen lines over the last three months that should ensure order fulfilment levels are maintained.
“We will continue to maintain higher levels of stock while trying to minimise the potential impact at the end of the three month grace period.”
First Minister Arlene Foster said her DUP colleague was flagging problems that may occur at the end of the three-month grace period if there is no resolution of problems. “He was not saying there is an issue now with schools and hospitals, but we have to take the issue seriously and get a resolution,” she said.
Michael Bell, executive director of the NI Food and Drink Association said he finds it difficult to believe schools and hospitals will run short of food.
“Food and drink is Northern Ireland’s largest industry and we supply food for 10m people, 8m of which are mostly in GB,” Mr Bell said. “The concept that we would run short of food in an overall sense I find to difficult to believe. There’ll be plenty of food.”
Northern Ireland’s population is around 1.9m.
But Mr Bell said there may be an issue around choice, and the movement of certain products across the Irish Sea.
If that is not sorted by April 1, there may be problems with certain products, said Mr Bell.
Hospitality industry suppliers, who may also have contracts for hospitals and schools, have been among the hardest hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, and that could impact local supply going forward, said Mr Bell.
Wholesaler Musgrave NI is in ongoing talks with the five main Stormont parties, the company said. “Our supply chain is strong with our pre-Brexit stock-build and contingency plan. And we are working closely with our suppliers, many of which are NI based, to ensure this continuity of supply continues,” it said.
In a later statement, Mr Poots said: “I was made aware of this issue during a meeting last week with NI retailers. My officials have been working with traders, retailers, hauliers and Defra on a number of general and specific issues with regard to food for hospitals and schools.
“While some of these relate to the more general concern around groupage, which requires a range of solutions, other specific issues, for example relating to ready meals and specialised diets, have been identified and mitigated. However, stakeholders continue to tell me that in the absence of further mitigations being found, the end of three and six month grace periods will present further issues.”
The Department of Health said “there has not been any major disruption on food supplies into NI hospitals due to EU Exit”, just “some minor delays, and a small number of products have had to be substituted with equivalents, but this is only for a temporary period”. The spokesperson said suppliers have a range of contingencies in place such as “additional stockholding, alternative transit routes or moving to local supply”.
A Department of Education spokesperson said the Education Authority has held several meetings with key suppliers and “the only issue from the output of these meetings highlighted one product which would not be available and an alternative product will be made available if required.”
“We have no indication from suppliers of disruption to their supply chain that would impact delivery of school meals,” it said..