“Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish industries are powering ahead and have effective marketing solutions to varying degrees,” NIFDA executive director Michael Bell told Food Manufacture. “There is obviously a need for something similar for England. The core issue here is that, over the past decade, the English have been somewhat ambivalent to their food.”
Bell pointed to the 2009 demise of marketing body Food From Britain, which helped coordinate many of England’s regional food groups and was historically poorly funded by Government, as evidence of the lack of support for English food. “This has to be seen in juxtaposition with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, all three of which have made food a priority.”
He said a growing recognition of the importance of food to the economy was “driving the gestation of an England solution”, but there was a long way to go. In addition, a different sort of umbrella brand that better supported unity through diversity was required to back devolved nations more effectively, he said. “As a straw man, I suggest ‘Island Harvest’. To be really radical, could that be four-nation or even five-nation?
Critical to cooperation between national food and drink trade bodies to boost international trade should be common food standards, he argued. “If you’re going to work together, you can’t compromise each other. It’s critical we maintain the highest possible levels of integrity.”
To that end, Bell claimed the devolution of regulations and food standards was “a fundamental mistake”. “Food standards should not be driven by politics. They should be driven by the marketplace. We, as an industry, must deliver on areas such as plastics, animal welfare and environmental credentials and segregating the UK market into one set of rules for one part and another for another part is a mistake.”
Referring to the creation of Food Standards Scotland (FSS) and the beginnings of divergence between it and the FSA, Bell said: “I think we need to go back to one organisation. I recently had a civil servant try to tell me how impressive it was that the two organisations had met together. The longer this goes on, the worse it will get.”
Bell was speaking at the Food and Drink Federation’s annual symposium, held at the National Gallery in London on 14 May. Addressing delegates at the event, he described the Food is GREAT campaign as “sub-optimal for Northern Ireland”. He said that, even within England, there was little base demand for backing English food and drink. On the basis that England was effectively a significant importer of Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh food products and accounting for its trade in imports from elsewhere in the world, it was 60% reliant on imported food and drink, he said.
In terms of the strategy for cooperation between the devolved nations on export promotion, Bell said: “When we are 10,000 miles away, we work together. When we are hundreds of miles away, we work to our own advantage.”
He made his comments shortly after Department for International Trade figures revealed UK food exports had grown to a record £5.7bn in the first quarter of 2019.
Conference speakers acknowledged the export growth, but argued that UK food and drink trade still wasn’t reaching its true global potential and did not have the numbers of overseas government representatives other, much smaller countries supplied.