A degree in chemistry and applied maths and a master’s in environmental science proved to be the perfect foundation for a career in retailing for Aoife Noonan. She talks to Maev Martin about her passion for food manufacturing and her role as head of quality assurance with Lidl Ireland.
Noonan completed a degree in chemistry and applied maths from Maynooth University, followed by a master’s in environmental science at TCD, graduating in the middle of Ireland’s most recent recessionary period, which began back in 2008.
“After college, I had to figure out what I wanted to do, and my options were limited, but I secured a role in the food-manufacturing side of the Aryzta operation in Dublin,” she says.
“I worked on the production line and with retailers. I got a good feel for what was involved in the manufacturing and the retail side of the business, and my love of food grew from there.”
A brief stint in the pharmaceutical sector reinforced her love of food – “I fell into the food industry by accident, but it has become my passion,” she says.
“I love being involved in the product development side of things, and then getting the product on the shelves and interacting with suppliers.”
Noonan will be celebrating ten years of working in Lidl Ireland’s quality assurance department in September.
She will also be marking eight years in her current role as head of quality assurance, having joined the department as a team member in 2012.
One of the achievements of which Noonan and her team are most proud is securing accreditation as an ISO 9001:2015 Certified Quality Assurance Department.
“We are the only retailer in Ireland to achieve this certification, which we received in 2021,” she says.
“It is something that we worked very hard to achieve, and it required a thorough examination of our procedures, looking at our stakeholders, and reviewing our customers’ expectations. The certification process forces you to examine your entire systems from a new angle and to focus on what your customers require – both your employees and your external customers, who are buying your products every day. It is a great certification to have, as the process of acquiring it allows you to examine your processes in detail and see how you can become more efficient and better identify your customers’ needs.”
A Day In The Life
No two days are the same in Lidl Ireland’s quality assurance department, and Noonan can find herself working on a variety of projects.
“Team meetings and risk assessment budgets are routine tasks from day to day, but anything could come across my desk on any day, whether it is addressing customer complaints, carrying out supplier audits, approving product labels, or tasting new products in our test kitchen. No one day is the same, and that is what I love about my job,” she says.
Key aspects of Noonan’s role include the analysis of own-brand foods and local foods, a comprehensive fruit and vegetable pesticide programme that tests over 2,000 items a year, the auditing of all production sites on the island of Ireland that are manufacturing Lidl own-brand products, sensory tasting – which involves both consumer and internal taste panels – and new-product development.
The Lidl Ireland quality assurance team tasted over 2,000 products in 2021.
The quality assurance department also handles all product-related complaints and queries, of which it receives approximately 3,000 every year.
“A common complaint would be where someone notices that the quality of a product has changed,” Noonan says.
“They buy the product regularly and notice that something is different, so we examine it in our test kitchen. We are proactive in dealing with those customer complaints and in bringing the information to life in our kitchen, to see if there is an issue that we need to address.”
All product labels for Lidl own-brand products for sale on the island of Ireland are approved by Noonan’s quality assurance team, with 850 labels approved last year, across a wide range of product categories.
“We have a branding and packaging team that designs the artwork, and then my team checks that everything is legally correct before it goes to print,” she says.
“My role is hands-on, as our department is working with all departments in Lidl and with all our suppliers, so we are essentially a service provider to the business. There are ten of us – nine team members and myself. We are a small but dynamic team!”
Apart from the achievement of ISO 9001:2015 certification, the Lidl Ireland quality assurance department is currently working on other major projects, including an updating of its health and nutrition policy.
“This is available for everyone to see and read on our website, but we are updating it this year, and the revamped policy will be featured on our site from the middle of this year,” she says.
“It will list any ingredients that we don’t add to our products, such as artificial flavours or colours, and it will include our updated salt and sugar targets. It will set out our requirements for suppliers, and, specifically, it will tell them what we don’t want in our products, and there are a huge range of substances that we don’t want. In addition, the updated policy will ensure that the ingredients that we are happy to include – and those that we don’t want to include – reflect EU legislation and guidelines, and are also reflective of what our customers want.”
One area that Lidl Ireland’s quality assurance team is currently examining is the achievement of salt and sugar reduction across all own-brand products.
“We are trying to make our products healthier for our customers, so they know they can pick up a product that is great quality and is also healthier,” she says.
“We are looking at reducing added salt and added sugar across all own-brand products in store, and our aim is to reduce this by 20% by 2025. Since 2015, we have already reduced sugar by 46% and salt by 7%, so further reducing the salt in our products this year is a big project for us. Salt is a functional ingredient in products and extends their shelf life, so trying to get that balance right is a challenge for us, and it is a project that we are working on very closely with specific suppliers.”
Noonan’s team also launched the Salesforce software programme last year, replacing Lidl’s previous system for handling customer complaints, to ensure quicker turnaround times in dealing with complaints and to give customers the standard of response that they are expecting.
Lidl is responsible for 140 own-brand production sites on the island of Ireland.
“This is a huge amount of sites for such a small country, and also when we compare it to other countries where Lidl is operating,” says Noonan.
“When we decide to on-board a new production site for own-brand products, we audit the facilities before they start supplying us. We have BRC-approved auditors who visit sites and audit on our behalf, and that allows us to see how the site is working and if there are any improvements that can be made. Once they become part of the Lidl network of producers and start supplying our stores, they are then audited regularly, to ensure standards are being maintained.”
Liffey Meats and O’Brien Fine Foods are just two of Lidl’s many own-brand suppliers.
“We work very closely with Liffey Meats because beef is a big category for us,” she says.
“The Liffey Meats team regularly visit our test kitchen, to taste our products and see if there are any improvements that can be made.
“We also carry out internal and external consumer panel tastings, to ensure our beef products are the best. In addition, we are working with Liffey Meats on a project to increase our market share in beef, and to ensure that we have the best quality in the market.”
O’Brien Fine Foods produces a lot of Lidl’s cooked meats.
“This is a category where we are working closely with them on salt reduction,” Noonan says.
“It is very important for our customers, and for their children, to ensure that the products going into lunchboxes every day are healthy.”
Responding To Trends
Vegan products are a very big trend at the moment, and one that is here to stay.
“It is very important for us to ensure that our customers can do their full shop with us and get products to suit all dietary requirements,” says Noonan.
“We are introducing a summer range, which would include different salads, barbecue products, and chicken, beef and pork products. Our summer products range will be in store next month. Apart from working on seasonal products, we also work on products that are sold consistently throughout the year, such as everyday refreshes of bread and beef. On the protein side of things, we have our protein bars and high-protein desserts in yoghurts and puddings, as well as ice cream.
“For Lidl, it is all about protein-enriched products when it comes to healthy eating because they are very popular with our customers. That is one area where we have expanded the ranges in the past year or so. We now have a core range of protein products, but we will be looking at how we can expand it even further.”