the big interview

The Wright approach

By Rick Pendrous contact

- Last updated on GMT

Wright is not afraid to be combative when defending the food and drink industry
Wright is not afraid to be combative when defending the food and drink industry

Related tags: Nutrition, Ian wright

The FDF’s Ian Wright is building a media reputationas a ‘political bruiser’. Rick Pendrous went ringside.

Key points

Expect more waves to be created by the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) new director general (dg) Ian Wright. Wright is a combative man who’s not afraid to go on the front foot when confronted with what he considers to be ill-informed comments against the UK’s food and drink manufacturing sector from various health lobby groups not to mention TV interviewers and others from the “metropolitan elite”.

But, it’s fair to say that Wright’s approach since taking over the lead role last Easter from the former dg Melanie Leech, has ruffled more than a few feathers in the sector and beyond.

Not everyone thinks his style is appropriate. While Leech, a former civil servant, took a relatively diplomatic approach with detractors, Wright, who was the former corporate relations director with drinks group Diageo and has a commercial background, is more of a political bruiser – in all senses of the phrase.

He is not alone though, in believing that the time has come to take the gloves off and fight back against those who would seek to lay the blame for all the world’s ills at the feet of food and drink processors. Some say the FDF has for too long been the ‘ministry for rebuttal’ and the footnote, rather than lead, in many a press story.

Fight against health lobbyists (Return to top)

Wright believes he made a strong argument in defence of the alcoholic drinks sector in his former role. He reckons a similarly robust approach is needed to fend off the slings and arrows being targeted at Britain’s food and non-alcoholic drinks sector.

He claims health lobbyists are far too selective in their use of data and evidence to support the case they make. Meanwhile, there are others who, while positing health as the reason for their attacks, are in reality on a crusade against multinational businesses supported by an anti-capitalist agenda. “The industry has to tell its story compellingly and effectively and it has to do so over a sustained period,”​ says Wright. “It’s really important that we adopt a narrative that persuades people of our importance.”

Wright reels off the numbers to support his claims about UK food and drink manufacturing. It employs 400,000 people, and is valued at £81.8bn, representing 16% of total UK manufacturing turnover. It creates £21.5bn of gross added value and £12.8bn of exports.

“But alongside that, there is a really important second bit which is giving individual examples about which people can relate,”​ he adds.

It’s all about getting over all the good stuff that manufacturers do, he says. And it includes meeting consumer demand for exciting new products, while generating wealth for the nation; by creating local jobs and raising tax revenues, which help pay for things such as the National Health Service, education and social care.

Metropolitan elite (Return to top)

“There is a view among our more metropolitan elite critics that there was a sort of golden age when food was much nicer and tastier which is tosh,”​ he remarks. “Ironically, they are metropolitan and don’t live where most of the food is grown.”

When pressed on his trenchant style in media interviews, Wright responds: “I hope I am never discourteous but I will be combative. We are here to represent a great industry, which the mainstream media quite often ignores or misreports … I’ve only just got started; I’ve not even revved up yet.”

Wright’s views are informed, not just by his business background, but also by his political and personal back-story. While a keen vegetable grower (and he is particularly proud of his “rather spectacular carrots”​), he is keenly aware that we are not going to feed the world by growing more veg on our allotments and, therefore, the crucial role to be played by food manufacturers.

Wright, aged 57, is a supporter of the Liberal Democrats and he counts many leading names in the party among his close friends.

“I’m a proud liberal with a big and a small ‘L’”​, he says, adding that he was “devastated”​ by the Liberal Democrats’ virtual wipe-out at last May’s general election. His paternal grandfather worked as a servant “below stairs”​ for wealthy employers, so he also reckons he understands the aspirations of working people.

He is particularly incensed by what he views as a simplistic and biased debate in the media about obesity. “You get middle class people telling ordinary working class people what they should be doing,”​ he says. “And it is really, really tiresome and arrogant and they should stop.”

Sugar tax is not the answer (Return to top)

When asked what he would like to see from the government’s childhood obesity strategy, it is not surprising that he doesn’t think sugar taxes or marketing restrictions are the answer.

Unless the government and Labour do a complete volte-face on taxes of foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), proposals to introduce them are unlikely to appear in the obesity strategy when it is published soon despite entreaties from health lobbyists, Public Health England and the MPs’ Health Select Committee.

“We know that the biggest single levers you can pull on improving the outcomes in obesity are all related to calories in calories out,”​ he says. “So calorie reduction, exercise, reformulation, portion size, these are all big levers that can be pulled.”

Despite this, Wright recognises the Public Health Responsibility Deal on voluntary reformulation of food and drink may now be on the political back burner even though he believes it has achieved a lot, especially in reducing the salt content of food.

“My view would be a sensible strategy centred on voluntary agreements,”​ he declares. “It would include a fairly substantial amount of education and behavioural change discussion.”

Marketing restrictions (Return to top)

In reality, Wright’s biggest fears are not taxes – which he believes are unlikely – but tougher marketing restrictions on HFSS foods, which could well be on the cards.

“It would be very, very regrettable if government moved in the direction of marketing restrictions,”​ he says. “The principle reason is that marketing stuff gives people information about products and promotions guarantee low prices. So, prices rising is not good for the consumer in any way, shape or form.”

On his wish list from government is more tax breaks for investment in the sector, easing of planning restrictions to allow manufacturers to expand, and more support for small and medium sized firms seeking to grow their exports.

He would also like to see greater investment in workforce skills on top of the planned increase in apprenticeship numbers, which he welcomes.

However, he expresses concern about the rate of the new apprenticeship levy on businesses with wage bills above £3M in the Autumn Statement. This, Wright says, “may hit company investment pots for staff training and, perversely, new apprenticeship starts”.

While he confesses some surprise in the government’s decision to drop the Food Science ‘A’-level, given the 109,000 predicted shortfall in people in food and drink manufacture by 2022, he adds: “We want to talk to government about the whole of skills education.”

Wright also claims he is not back-pedalling on the call he made soon after being appointed for a Manufacturing Council for Food and Drink, but his expectations have clearly changed.

“What we wanted with a Manufacturing Council was a mechanism for talking with government about the issues that concerned us,”​ says Wright. “But I don’t think it necessarily has to be a sort of institutional solution.”

Before that is likely to happen, look out for more sparks from Wright in media interviews about obesity and its solutions.

Related topics: People & Skills

Related news

Show more

Follow us

Featured Events

View more

Products

View more

Webinars