Brexit warnings renewed by the Food and Drink Federation

Assuming the role of chief executive of the UK’s Food and Drink Federation has offered Ian Wright plenty of tests, as Neill Barston discovered, meeting him at the organisation’s London headquarters

Having worked for major corporations in the sector including Mars Confectionery and most recently at Diageo drinks business, Ian Wright possesses a particularly strong oversight of the industry.

Over the past four years he has helped champion companies in the drive to tackle major issues such as responding to demands for environmental improvements within product packaging, the development of ‘clean label’ products, as well as topical matters such as sugar reduction within a host of product ranges.

There is clearly a lot at stake, with food and drink worth a reported £31.1 billion to the UK economy, making it a major manufacturing force.

As Wright notes, he regards his post as a significant privilege in helping represent a full spectrum of businesses across the sector, including some of the biggest brands in the industry including Cadbury, Coca-Cola and Nestle, over key issues impacting on the market.

Perhaps by some margin the most taxing of immediate issues is the looming prospect of Brexit, which continues to place a significant strain on businesses right across the sector amid ongoing uncertainty.

For those that have come to know the federation’s chief executive, he’s not a man who mixes his words, and it’s an issue that he believes would be ‘catastrophic’ for British businesses if the UK is unable to fashion an appropriate deal with its European counterparts.

“It’s a huge privilege to be in this role. I never dreamed at this point in my career I would have the chance to steer the food and drink industry through potentially the biggest threat it has faced since the Second World War.

“My role is to find resolution to these problems, and see that the industry remains properly represented in the corridors of power and to help it continue to grow, and you need a team of brilliant people as we have here for that to happen.”

In a candid interview with Confectionery Production, he says both the sweets and bakery segments of the market, much like other areas of the sector, remain extremely concerned over potential impacts on the price and availability of ingredients, and logistics certainty.

Speaking on the issue recently, he said manufacturers were ‘mightily relieved that an immediate threat of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit’ had lifted, but he urged that the government use the time wisely.

“It is very difficult to see how this is going to be resolved – we have missed two deadlines over it and now there is a third. I genuinely don’t know what will happen – It seems Prime Minister Mrs May can’t get any legislation through that is associated with her deal,” says Wright, adding that he hopes the FDF’s lobbying government alongside the British Retail Consortium and the National Farmers’ Union will ultimately yield results.

However, he explains that as it stands, UK businesses have already been incurring costs totalling around £100 million a week through additional Brexit stockpiling of ingredients, as well as additional logistics and warehousing requirements that have not been fully utilised.

Industry development

Reflecting on wider events within the FDF over the past four years, he says there have been some notable achievements by its teams.
These include its assistance in the development of the recently created Food and Drink Sector Council, as well as a modernisation process of its own role and structure within the industry. This has included a significant move of relocating to its present glass-fronted headquarters in Bloomsbury Way, London.

“I walk in with an enormous sense of joy coming here every day, it’s far better than our previous offices and the open-plan arrangement here help with collaboration across teams.”

As Wright adds, the fact many of its present association membership are particularly high-profile companies (including up to around a quarter f its companies within the confectionery sector) in their own right has enabled the federation to make headway in terms of its activities.

While the federation’s work on behalf of industry may not in itself make headline news, the organisation’s chief executive believes it is making a difference.

He adds: “I think it’s important to understand that part of our appeal to the external world to which we are dealing with is that are very accessible as to understanding who were are.

“Confectionery and soft drinks brands are a large portion of our membership, especially with the likes of Coca-Cola, Mars, and other big name companies such as Cadbury and Ferrero, all of these are incredibly well known.

“That’s a huge help to us in terms of getting our story across, as people are going to trust these brands when they are talking about what they need in order to thrive and continue to be a success.”

Beyond the matter of Brexit, he acknowledges there are several especially pressing matters, including the highly topical removal of plastics from the food and drinks sector, as well as tackling the obesity crisis. These are two matters in particular that have generated considerable media spotlight, and prompted rapid responses from industry.

As Wright asserts, the present approach of self-regulation within the industry is probably the correct one, rather than government attempting to clamp down on industry in a heavy-handed manner.

He adds this is particularly significant issue due to it being consumer driven, with shoppers seeking instant action in the wake of environmental documentaries such as Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series.

“There’s now a big challenge for manufacturers looking for alternatives to plastics that keep products fresh within shelf-life limits.
“The other challenge is with obesity, and confectionery is at the forefront of that issue. Nobody could argue the need for reducing childhood obesity and type II diabetes, yet there’s no evidence to say that consumers want smaller products that are also less well marketed.

“So, it’s a different test that requires co-operation and perhaps even better engagement with the industry to come up with a long-term collaborative response. It’s about education, and industry going further and faster in reducing sugar. But that has to be in a way that retains the palatability and appeal of the product,” concludes Wright on one of the major wider issues that continues to keep him extremely occupied.

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