The agrifood sector is Ireland's most important indigenous sector, providing hundreds of thousands of jobs throughout every county at producer and processor level. The sector was never more important to the Irish economy than it is now. We are justifiably proud of our reputation as "Ireland the Food Island" and, notwithstanding current economic difficulties, the Government is continuing to invest hundreds of millions of euro at farm and processor levels.
As a food producing country, it is essential that we have a robust food industry that provides an outlet for our producers and adds value to the primary product. Irish food, drink and horticulture exports last year were worth in excess of €8 billion. I share Bord Bia's view that the industry has the potential to boost annual export returns by more than 20%, thus reaching €10 billion by 2011.
The sector generates output of €20 billion annually. It has been and continues to be supported at primary, processing, research and marketing levels through a range of measures undertaken in line with the strategy set out in the agri-vision 2015 report. The food industry is vital to our economic future, in particular at this time in terms of employment, value-added and export earnings. While it is undoubtedly facing challenges it has in the past demonstrated its resilience and capacity to adapt to competitive challenges and to build business in emerging and changing markets.
Building on the natural advantages of food production in Ireland and applying the highest standards of food safety, the sector has been transformed into a sophisticated industry well capable of competing on worldwide markets. In more recent times, mainly because of the depreciation of sterling and general contraction of demand, the competitive pressures on the sector have become more acute. The Government is conscious of the factors impacting on the industry and is actively engaged in identifying ways in which we can continue to assist the sector's development and growth.
While it is essential that we continue to identify and build new export markets for our food and beverages, it is equally important that we have a strong domestic market for Irish food and drink. A strong domestic presence is an essential factor in developing export markets. In this regard, we need an Irish retail sector that maintains a strong commitment to sourcing and providing a comprehensive range of familiar Irish products and brands. Ultimately, of course, it is a matter for consumers if they wish to support quality Irish food products, indigenous Irish suppliers and Irish jobs.
I strongly agree with the Tánaiste that retailers must strike a reasonable balance between granting price reductions to consumers, a practice with which none of us would disagree, and giving to suppliers and producers a fair return, which is essential to the maintenance of thousands of Irish jobs and the survival of primary producers.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
While the relationship between the food industry and the retail trade is essentially a matter for those parties, there are specific provisions in competition law that extend to business relationships, including relationships between suppliers and retailers. These provisions prohibit various anti-competitive practices, including price-fixing, abusing a dominant position, requesting "hello" money and imposing resale price maintenance. In that specific regard, the House will be aware that the Tánaiste has requested the Competition Authority to conduct a study of the retail import-distribution sector in regard to how competition is working in the sector and whether there are any practices or methods of competition that are affecting the supply of goods or services. The Tánaiste recently received the authority's report and is currently examining its conclusions and intends to publish it shortly.
The Government appreciates fully the value of the food sector to the Irish economy, not least in terms of the employment provided and is committed to its ongoing support in terms of investment and innovation. The record of investment proves this beyond doubt. We will continue to work with the industry to address the ongoing competitive pressures and to ensure that it continues to produce high-quality food product that is more than capable of competing with any comparable product at home or abroad. At the same time, the retail sector has a key role to play in supporting Irish jobs through its sourcing and provision of quality Irish products and brands.