This was the consensus among delegates at the Food Manufacture Group’s Business Leaders’ Forum held in London last month and sponsored by legal firm DWF together with analytical testing company ALS Life Sciences UK, packaging specialist Charpak and RSA Insurance Group.
One delegate expressed surprise that UK food and drink exports – currently worth around £18bn a year – weren’t much higher, given the advantages of UK processors in terms of efficiencies and relatively low labour costs compared with other western European countries.
Prospects were even rosier
The prospects were even rosier following the fall in value of the pound against the euro and US dollar, other delegates said.
“As part of the overall size of the food industry, exports are still relatively modest,” said John Giles, divisional director with agrifood market specialist Promar International.
He reported that 70% of UK food exports currently went to the EU – mainly, to Ireland, France, Italy, Spain and the Benelux countries.
“It seems to me that whatever happens over the next couple of years, we do need to find some mechanism where we still retain good access to European markets and we need to spend a lot of time reassuring our customers on the continent that we are serious about doing business out there,” said Giles.
Vulnerable under a WTO regime`
“If we go to a World Trade Organisation [WTO]-type model, we could be at a serious disadvantage.” He warned that first-time and less experienced exporters would be particularly vulnerable under a WTO regime.
However, he referred to the “huge opportunities” presented by emerging markets in the Middle East and Asia. While still quite modest, they were growing quickly, he added.
“But it could take five or 10 years to negotiate full access to some of these markets and it could take another five or 10 years to actually implement the access,” he cautioned.
“So, clearly, there are opportunities in Asia and the Middle East, but we are not the first ‘cab on the rank’ in many of those markets and we find that other countries have been out there for some time.”
Meanwhile, don’t miss our exclusive video interview with Giles, in which he explained the potential to boost food and drink exports.