Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation bemoans a lack of gov support for the UK's largest manufacturing sector...
One of the really frustrating things for food and drink manufacturers is the lack of any long-term strategic vision by Government for our sector – one that is underpinned by a political appreciation of the importance of processors to the overall UK economy.
It’s an often ignored fact that our sector is the UK’s biggest manufacturing industry, employing 440,000 people directly and indirectly accounting for a further 1.2 million jobs in the food chain.
The UK food and drink industry is also a vital high value manufacturing sector offering world class capabilities in areas of production, logistics, sales, marketing and innovation – which combine to create annual Gross Value Added of £20bn.
We are highly innovative – spending £300m on R&D and launching 8,000 new products every year. And we export more than £9bn worth of products every year.
And all this economic activity is carried out by 7,000 enterprises – most of them small or mid-size companies – generating a combined turnover of £72.6bn.
These data alone should explain why we passionately believe that food and drink manufacturers must be positioned right at the heart of all Government economic thinking. But the importance of the recent food security debates have added a new sense of urgency to our discussions with Government ¬– and highlighted the need for some sort of vision that will also ensure the nation’s food supply against the combined effects of climate change, higher global demand and increasing pressure on finite resources.
The good news (we hope) is that Defra has now started work on just such a vision for Government. And we think Ministers get the point that manufacturers will need to be at the heart of that vision as we are the critical link in the food chain. Without a competitive UK food manufacturing base, UK farmers would lack a ready market (after all, we buy three-quarters of what they produce), consumers would be more dependent on imported supplies and there would be less resilience across the food chain.
Given our sector’s relative size and economic importance, we clearly recognise that the food and drink industry has a responsibility to respond to the many difficult issues facing society – not least in the debate about how we ensure UK citizens have access to food and drink products that are both nutritious and offer the lowest possible environmental impact.
But I would argue that our industry is already leading the way in these areas.
For example: our members are working under FDF’s Five-fold Environmental Ambition to make a real difference to the environment by setting themselves stretching targets in areas such as carbon emissions, water efficiency and waste reduction. We are also helping to improve the health of the nation through our groundbreaking work to change the recipes of favourite British brands and introduce clearer nutrition labelling on food packs.
After many frustrating years for companies in our sector, we feel that we now have a unique chance to work with Government to develop both a long-term vision and a strategy for food production that takes full account of the economic, strategic and social importance of manufacturers’ to the UK.
So what do we want to see? Well, a clearer, more coherent and consistent approach to food policy right across Departments would be a good start (that all elusive joined-up Government). We also want a public commitment that Government will in future support a successful food sector as a top priority in its own right and we want Ministers to recognise they must do a much better job at ensuring we have an appropriate regulatory environment here in the UK so that our industry can remain competitive, particularly against our EU competitors.
That’s easier said than done, of course. But we remain optimistic that Government is keen to turn words into real action that will secure the future success of the country’s biggest manufacturing sector.
By Julian Hunt of the Food and Drink Federation
Do you work for a food and drink manufacturing company? What support measures woulf you like to see introduced by Whitehall? Leave a comment below.