The drive towards adding value across the food processing industry in recent years can be seen in the increase in the value of consumer foods for export.

Bord Bia’s performance and prospects report clearly shows this growth in the Republic of Ireland where the “prepared consumer foods” export sector has risen from €2.4bn in 2020 to €3.1bn in 2023.

Last year it emerged as the only growing food and drink export sector, adding 7% year-on-year. PCF’s share of overall exports by value accounted for 20% of the total last year.

We talked to Mary Morrissey, head of PCF at Bord Bia, to get a picture of where the industry is, and what the opportunities and challenges facing the sector are.

“PCF stood out last year because there was significant enough value growth. It also stands out because it is a significantly different sector to the other main food and drink export categories.”

“Primarily, it is more value-added product. While industry inputs can be influenced by commodity prices, and that has been a big challenge for the companies in the sector, the products are aimed at the end-use consumer.

Mary Morrissey, of Bord Bia gives an overview on what the opportunities and challenges facing the sector are.

“That value added between the commodity product and the consumer is where the resilience in the sector came from in 2023.”

Morrissey makes the point that because PCF is such a broad category it often doesn’t get the attention it deserves, considering what a significant portion of total food and drink exports it is.

She also points out that for PCF in Ireland the UK is the key market, accounting for 64% of exports from the Republic for the category. Not only is the UK the closest market, but also companies in the sector in Ireland have been built, designed and structured to supply that market.

“The UK is a huge consumer of appetite in these products. Despite all the challenges around Brexit, there was a supply-demand dynamic there that meant those challenges had to be got over, and they are continuing to be got over.”

This is a key point for PCF – as they are consumer products, they have to meet consumer tastes in whichever market they are selling.

“They are not commodity products which can easily switch from one market to another, but on the flip side, once a product is in place, it is not readily replaced by competition from elsewhere.


The products sold are a range from brand label goods on shelves, to supermarket private label lines, to food service and into to QSRs (quick-serve restaurants). There are also sales to manufacturing for further processing.

This diversification within markets also helps with the resilience of PCF.

“It is rare that a company will be supplying only private label or only into food services. They generally serve several categories and so are themselves diversified from the get go.”

The point that customers and processors work together on products is very important, Morrisey says. “There is nobody making a PCF product and then going out looking for a market. Producers and customers work hand in glove on new products.

“It is always hard-won business, but it is good steady business – win it hard, and then you can hold on to it. And then you have a chance to build on it.” Morrissey adds the important point that Irish PCF companies are not in the business of competing only on price.

Premium UK market

“Price is huge, but Irish companies have to be sending products into the more premium end of the UK market. This does not mean we are talking about artisan products – some of the Irish companies are very large operations – but rather Irish companies are not competing for the value end of the market.”

This does not mean that Irish companies have not been under pressure in price. The sector is not shielded from the volatility of input costs as well as the difficulties around labour costs and retention.

“Companies are always asking themselves how they can get more efficient and how they can increase capacity.”

Added to this has been the changing trends from the UK consumer where any slowdown in the economy there leads to more pressure for price reductions, no matter where a product is in the consumer preference hierarchy.

Looking ahead: ‘innovation is key’

Companies have to innovate to find new customers in markets they already serve and when looking for diversification into new markets, particularly in Europe. Those markets generally already have a very large and well established PCF sector, so for Irish companies the question has to be what they can bring to the market that is different.

Mary Morrissey picks out the health and wellness trend as something that there is increasing focus on.

She says the work involved in entering a new market, particularly a mature one with established supply chains is huge. Once a producer identifies a segment that is under-served they have to engage in market research, find customers and then work with those customers to develop the product best suited to the market. “Nobody is developing a product and then looking for a market.”

Balancing act

For companies in the PCF sector, the balancing act is between trying to increase efficiency in the products they already sell while also spending money on the market research, innovation and capacity required to open new markets.

For the companies that get this right, there are plenty of opportunities out there, in Europe and even further afield in places like the Middle East and North America.