Past is present

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food supply chain Food

Past is present
If there is part of its name that sums up what the Provision Trade Federation (PTF) stands for it is the word 'trade'. However, reading through Providing for Britain: a new book published to celebrate the PTF's 125th birthday, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it's equally about the emergence of London as a centre of global business since the late 19th Century or maybe even the history of 'the great British breakfast' as the book pretty much starts and ends with the Brits' love affair with bacon.

The publication comprises a book of two halves. The first is an abridged version of Hugh Barty-King's Making Provision: A Centenary History of the Provision Trade​, published in 1986 to mark the PTF's first 100 years, will appeal to those who are fascinated by world history and the UK's role in shaping it particularly London's.

The book traces the history of the food supply chain from the industrial revolution onwards, including key developments such as the introduction of canning, corned beef and refrigerated transport. Interestingly, early cans "could only be opened with a chisel, not in widespread use in Victorian kitchens"​.

Imports to feed a nation

It describes the central role that global imports played in feeding the growing British nation and the emergence of important locations such as Smithfield, Hay's Wharf and what is now Docklands in London. It also describes the emergence of famous grocery names, such as Sainsbury, followed in the late 20th Century by the rise of modern supermarkets.

The book also reports on the UK joining the 'Common Market' and the major influence this institution still has in regulating trade and food policy often to the lament of the PTF today.

From the way the industry responded to the traumas and privations imposed on the UK population by two World Wars, to developing social history in the growing power of East End dockers in their fight against poverty and deprivation and The General Strike of 1926, the book charts the PTF's central role in Britain's history and, sometimes, its very survival as a nation.

Historians often argue that you need to know the past to understand the present. And, it is true that history has an uncanny knack of repeating itself.

With pressures on global resources and environment resulting in some people calling for 'meatless Mondays', it was interesting to read that in one of his last acts as Food Controller in April 1917, Lord Devonport introduced 'meatless days' as a form of rationing. It inevitably makes one ask: could we see food rationing again?

Coping with more turmoil

The second part of Providing for Britain​, written by Lisa Moore (former journalist on The Grocer​) and Clive Beddall (former editor of the same title) bring events up to date by highlighting the rollercoaster journey that the food sector has experienced over the past 25 years.

These have been years when politics, changing concerns about diet and health and animal welfare sometimes used to mask vested national interests have often fought against one another and the operation of a free market.

Throughout trade disputes and EU intervention, major industry consolidation and change, the chaos caused by BSE followed by foot and mouth disease in 2001 and later battles with the Food Standards Agency over nutrition and labelling, the PTF has proved a stalwart defender of its members' interests.

For those with a passion for good food such as cheese, butter, bacon and ham, there is also much in the book to explain why foods taste the way they do and how they arrive at your local store or restaurant today.

While the PTF has adapted itself on many occasions in response to the changing world and changing ways of doing business, as well as momentous events such as two World Wars, its role today is equally relevant if somewhat different in serving the interests of its members that account for a market worth over £5bn.

Although the PTF's Produce Exchange origins, together with many of the famous names that were associated with them, are long since gone, it still exercises a strong voice in government both in the UK and Brussels. While this is primarily to do with upholding the interests of importer members, at the same time it strenuously defends the taste preferences of UK consumers: from the types of yogurt sold here to the sort of bacon cure preferred by British consumers.

Whether it is providing support for its members against a background of the crisis in euroland; uncertainty over Common Agricultural Policy reform; continued input cost volatility; or regulatory controls from Brussels, the need for the PTF isn't going to disappear any time soon.

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