Brexit concerns give industry food for thought
This year’s Food and Drink Federation convention was dominated by discussion over how industry can handle the prospect of Brexit, as a number of key issues on trading arrangements remain unknown. Neill Barston reports
Greg Clark, the UK Secretary of State for Business has spoken of a vital need to ensure ‘frictionless trade’ with EU countries including Ireland over Brexit negotiations.
The minister addressed a Food and Drink Federation (FDF) convention, expressing support for the industry, which has voiced concern over the potential loss of European logistics and supply chain arrangements should no government deal be struck.
For the FDF, along with many other industry associations, maintaining tariff free access to its core EU markets remains of key importance – which will not be possible without a revised deal replacing the present customs union agreement.
Mr Clark explained the UK’s food and drink sector remained of major importance to the economy, though with the countdown to departure from the block set at March 2019, little time remained for delivering certainty for those in industry.
He said: “As we negotiate our new relationship with the EU, securing continued frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland, while avoiding hard border infrastructure, will be paramount.”
Significantly, he also acknowledged manufacturers’ concerns over safeguarding rule of origin legislation affecting EU goods, which could place a major.
Mr Clark highlighted a case study of a company producing wholemeal loaves under a household brand in the UK that exported to EU regulated Ireland, an EU member state.
“The wholemeal and white flour it contains is milled in the UK from a blend of grains from growers in Canada, the US and the UK reflecting both global price and harvest quality.
“Yet in one post-Brexit scenario examined by the report, the use of UK-milled flour from a blend of grains, including any quantity of wheat grown outside the UK, would automatically disqualify the loaf of bread from preferential import tariff treatment into the EU single market.
“We need to take concerns like this into account, avoiding any unnecessary barriers to trade, including from ‘Rules of Origin’.”
He praised businesses working on major issues facing the industry including reformulating products as government advisory body Public Health England oversees plans for industry to see a 20% reduction in sugar content of food- including confectionery ranges.
While there have been a couple of notable examples, the confectionery segment failed to reach an initial target of a 5% reduction of sugar over the past year.
The minister singled out Nestle, for its ambitious reformulation plans, which have now rolled into full production.
He added: Nestlé researchers in York have played an instrumental role in helping the company transform the structure of sugar through a new process only using natural ingredients.
“Their new product, Milkybar Wowsomes, has 30% less sugar than similar products with the largest-sized bars still under 100 calories.”
The Business secretary highlighted plans revealed earlier this year for £90 million investment in an industrial strategy aimed at creating ‘innovation accelerators’ tasked with the rapid introduction of high technology solutions for businesses.
Mr Clark said the government’s initiatives would help bring together AI, robotics and earth observation systems in order to help improve supply chain resilience within the agri-food sector.
He said: “The food and drink industry is the biggest manufacturing sector in the country, larger than automotive and aerospace combined.
“While the food and drink supply chain employs nearly four million people, from Scottish salmon farmers to workers in a McVities’ factory in Stockport, which makes two billion Jaffa Cakes a year, explaining that as London marked national tech week, the food and drink sector was ‘on the verge of a major revolution’ that would see it become one of the most technology intensive sectors within the economy.
“I see food and drink as being one of most important sectors of the future. For this reason, I have asked the government’s chief scientific adviser for advice on the potential opportunities that exist to significantly raise productivity across the whole UK food production system.”
The conference also heard an address from Michael Creed, Irish minister for agriculture and food warns that trade between Ireland and the UK could be impacted unless Brexit negotiations reached a deal that preserved present trading arrangements without a hard customs border.
His sentiments of concern were shared by Labour MP Barry Gardiner, the shadow secretary of state for international trade. He explained that his party would propose a new customs trade deal with the EU stating that achieving a positive deal was “an essential part of resolving border issues with Ireland and access to EU markets.”
Action on health
The event also heard from Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist diet, obesity and physical activity, at Public Health England.
Her department has advised government on nutrient composition of foods and advice on diet improvement measures.
She said there had been “a number of moments that had changed the dial” in helping deliver greater awareness and action on issues surrounding obesity.
Dr Tedstone highlighted the scientific advisory committee’s advice to government surrounding sugar and carbohydrates in our diets, which led to the production of a childhood obesity plan, and subsequent measures including restrictions on advertising certain product considered less healthy.
Meanwhile, Josephine Hansom, head of youth research and insight at Youthsight, research agency, offered an overview of 10 top trends within youth culture.
She said studies had shown young people were ‘far more risk averse than the previous generation. They have consequently been dubbed ‘generation sensible,’ with 67% of young people in a study from the Guardian newspaper showing that millennials would rather stay at home than go out.
“For those that do go out, food is definitely the main way for young people to be socialise,” explained the researcher specialist. She added that the trend had led to a sense of tribalism developing, including a large rise in veganism and health movement towards high-protein foods and supplements.