Long read

What does the F&B industry want from the next UK Government?

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

Six major associations representing the food and drink industry tell Food Manufacture what they'd like from the next UK Government. Credit: Getty/Adam Webb
Six major associations representing the food and drink industry tell Food Manufacture what they'd like from the next UK Government. Credit: Getty/Adam Webb

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As the UK general election looms, Food Manufacture pulls together the core asks of six different federations representing the food and beverage sector.

The UK food and drink sector contributes £38bn to the nation’s economy, according to Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) estimates, providing ample career opportunities and, of course, serving its vital role of keeping consumers fed.

Whilst the industry is well versed in hard times, the next leg of the journey is littered with hurdles. To achieve some of greatest and most necessary ambitions we are facing, the industry will not only need support from its next Government but to work with it collaboratively.  

In this article, Food Manufacture collates the key wishes some of the sector's most influential associations have outlined ahead of the UK's general election this July. 

Domestic and international supply

The International Meat Trade Association (IMTA), which represents UK companies importing and exporting meat, has five key asks for the next UK Government. Among these is a heavy emphasis on ensuring import controls are ‘proportionate and trade facilitative’.

To aid this, the association is calling on the UK Government to review the capabilities of Defra’s import team, ensuring it is sufficiently staffed and able to cope with the 24-hour nature of trade.

As outlined in IMTA 2024 Manifesto, meat imports are of the utmost importance to the UK, with approximately 2.2.m tonnes of meat or meat products from around 50 countries imported last year.

The IMTA notes that imports remove a tremendous level of potential food waste. For example, the UK currently imports 24.7m kilos of lamb legs (a single leg weighs on average 2.5kg); to meet demand without imports, the UK would need to produce an additional 4.9m lambs. Moreover, it would then have to find a market for the remaining 75% of the carcass – made up of cuts of meat and offal which the UK does create sufficient demand for right now.

While the UK does not export as much meat as it imports – around 14.8% of its total production in 2023 – the UK’s international foothold remains a priority. As mentioned, the UK does not consume certain parts of the animal in great quantities, so having the ability to ship that to where it is in high demand adds value to the overall carcass. This means better returns to the producer and makes the industry more economically sustainable.

To this end, the IMTA is urging the next political power to bring in a bespoke agreement addressing current veterinary issues between the UK and EU and ease the strain on SPS export barriers.

The FDF's own manifesto echoes some of the IMTA’s wishes, with the federation calling for a more strategic approach to imports.

The FDF believes the next Government needs to establish a more efficient process for duty suspensions, which it believes will increase pace, predictability and transparency, helping businesses react to seasonal supply challenges.

The FDF agrees trade between the UK and EU must be simplified. It contends that the UK Government could achieve this by seeking opportunities to improve the UK–EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement ahead of the five-year review, and by removing impediments such as UK-wide ‘Not for EU’ labelling.

For Rod Addy, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, international trade is also a top priority.

“We need to consolidate and build relationships with all our trading partners which allow us to continue supplying consumers with affordable, healthy and sustainable products and to open opportunities to develop new export markets elsewhere,”​ Addy told Food Manufacture.

“These relationships need to be as free and frictionless as possible, where necessary providing for mutual recognition of standards to minimise technical barriers to trade.”

But he also emphasised the importance in food security and domestic supply.

“Food security needs to be made a policy priority in its own right and a shared responsibility between Government and industry at all levels,” ​he continued. “Resilience means maintaining access to diverse and sustainable sources of supply from world markets as well as increasing production at home.”

For Addy, plans to increase domestic supply “need to be based on comparative advantage and aligned with wider environmental and climate change objectives”.

Talking from the cold chain’s perspective, the Cold Chain Federation’s (CCF) chief executive Phil Pluck said there are two key actions his association would be see within the first 100 days.

“The first is to designate the cold chain as a Cabinet Office Ministerial portfolio. Responsibility for our industry resting with a single Cabinet Office Minister from the outset will provide a much-needed point of focus and enable rapid response to any threats to the integrity of perishable supply chains,” ​Pluck said.

“The second early priority is formal recognition that the temperature-controlled supply chain is critical to national infrastructure. Experts from the cold chain should be at the top table in times of crisis response, and temperature-controlled storage and distribution operations should be specifically recognised in Critical National Infrastructure resilience planning.

Communication and collaboration

“These actions in the first 100 days will create the right platform for the collaborative work needed afterwards to make progress on the key areas identified in our Cold Chain Manifesto: driving cold chain sustainability and enhancing energy efficiency; enabling emission-free transport refrigeration; developing the next generation of cold chain talent; and removing barriers to international trade in temperature-sensitive products.”

The British Meat Processors Association’s CEO agreed collaboration is key going forward, particularly when it comes to resilience. 

“If we want food security for a growing UK population, we need a smoothly functioning domestic food supply chain. Government policy can help or hinder that and will form part of the next government’s legacy,” ​Nick Allen, BMPA’s chief executive stated.

“One of our main priorities from the next government is to get some clarity, which has been in short supply recently.

“Whether it’s future food policy, land use framework, labour shortages or food security and sustainability, we’ve had several announcements and motherhood statements from politicians of all stripes, but precious little detail. This lack of clarity is hampering our members’ ability to forward-plan and make investment commitments.

“At the root of this is a fundamental lack of understanding from policy makers of how the food supply chain works and the complex web of interdependent moving parts that make it run smoothly.

“This lack of understanding has been caused by Government not working closely enough with industry. It has led directly to ill thought-through policy decisions, and it’s had serious unintended consequences that have cost businesses more in overheads, stoked food price inflation and impacted our ability to trade.

“As an example, the meat industry is currently struggling with new workforce legislation that is stifling our ability to fill skilled vacancies, and border controls that have added significant cost, making us less competitive on the world stage and hiking prices for UK shoppers.

“The British meat industry asks that policy makers consult with the on-the-ground industry experts who can help identify impacts and opportunities. We’d also like to see the different government departments and civil servants work more closely together to ensure there are no detrimental, unintended consequences for the food supply chain of future policy decisions.”

The FDF has similar wishes, with the association urging whoever wins the next election to create a formal food and drink innovation partnership, like those with other manufacturing sectors. In this way, the FDF believes the Government will be able to understand the industry's processes and challenges much better.

Its manifesto also offers suggestions around promoting next gen talent, including the reform of the Apprenticeship Levy, a globally competitive immigration system, and increased collaboration between schools and local manufacturers.

The workforce is also among the British Frozen Food Federation’s (BFFF) wishlist – which is calling for investment into training programmes and apprenticeships; alongside revising the Shortage Occupation List to include seasonal workers.

But the Federation’s boss, Rupert Ashby, is also keen to emphasise the role frozen food could play in helping address some of the biggest challenges on all parties’ agendas.  

“Easing the cost of living crisis,”​ he offered as an example, “encouraging healthier lifestyles, and meeting the UK’s environmental targets.

“We’re keen to see the new administration take action to support the industry in achieving these aims, and we’ve laid out the key priorities. They include reforming tax policies to make frozen foods more affordable, sustainable and accessible; investing in innovation; cutting red tape; developing a skilled workforce and improving public perception of frozen food.”

Climate change

Climate change is a common theme across the manifestos and wishlists published by the many food and drink associations representing the sector.

As Addy pointed out, collaboration between UK Government and industry will also be important here too.

“Support will be needed to increase the supply of renewable energy, for more effective and efficient natural resource management, for the development of  common methodologies for measuring environmental impacts and for emissions reduction strategies which provide a level playing field, including in cross-border trade,”​ he noted.

“Government and industry also need to work together to develop and exploit the potential for new technologies and alternative production methods where barriers to progress would be beyond the scope of individual commercial businesses.”

Meanwhile, the FDF says it wants to work with the Government to help deliver on net zero ambitions, to restore biodiversity, create a fully-functioning circular economy, and reduce food waste.

On net zero, the federation believes the next political power needs to build on the successes of the Industrial Energy Transformation Fund with green incentives and grants to ensure manufacturers of all sizes are able to invest in energy efficiency and de-carbonisation.

It is also pushing for further and attractive investment into the UK’s recycling infrastructure, addressing the complexity and fragmentation of the current system. As the manifesto reads: ‘The Government should ring-fence EPR fees to ensure that local authorities use the additional funding to improve the UK’s recycling infrastructure. It should also confirm acceptance of mass balance accounting to unlock investment in chemical recycling.’

For BFFF, regulations around food labelling and packaging need to be streamlined to reduce complexity and cost, and the Plastic Packaging Tax scheme revisited to account for the low availability of food-grade recycled plastic content packaging. Sourcing this, the frozen-focused federation contends, places an unfair burden on food manufacturers when striving to meet recycling targets.

Meanwhile, the CCF, is calling for further support to be provided to operators to bridge the enhanced capital cost of emerging technologies and overcoming grid connection challenges to enable the installation of charging infrastructure.

On a similar vein, it wants to tackle overchilling in the frozen supply chain through the deployment of renewable energy.

Health & wellbeing

With the NHS on its knees and reviews into ultra processed foods on-going, health is another common occurrence between associations’ manifestos.

The FDF has several suggestions around health, among them is to provide broader and more accessible financial support for reformulation and healthier product innovation.

It states this could be achieve through existing R&D tax credits, grants and capital allowance schemes. This should include bringing capital within the scope of R&D tax credits, the FDF manifesto reads, thus allowing companies to offset the significant upfront costs that can often prevent further investment in product reformulation and innovation.

The federation is also calling for regional and national programmes to be set up through Government funding. It recommends basing this on the Scottish Government-funded Reformulation for Health Programme, and estimates such a scheme could be established across the whole of the UK for c£4m a year or c£3m for England alone.

Addy agreed health, in particular having a definition of health, is a top priority.

“As a country, we need to improve our understanding of what constitute healthy and balanced diets and lifestyles and the importance of consuming a variety of food types in order to provide a full range of essential nutrients for adults and children at all stages of their lives,”​ added Addy.

“Labelling and point of sale information is only one part of the solution. More needs to be done to reconnect people with where their food comes from, how it is produced and to improve cooking skills – especially as part of the education curriculum. Manufacturers need to be encouraged to produce portion sizes to meet all customer needs.”

Ashby believes frozen food could be a workable answer amidst the health and cost-of-living crises, which are so intrinsically linked.

As such, the BFFF is eager for the next UK Government to help change outdated perceptions of frozen food and promote it as a healthy, convenient, affordable and sustainable choice through public education campaigns, countering the idea that 'frozen is inferior to fresh'.

Don't leave us in the dark

The associations representing the voices of the UK’s food and drink system will undoubtedly be following the election with keen interest.

However, as was recently outlined in Addy’s recent column for Food Manufacture,​ one hopes that the purdah period does not hinder our vital sector, as it continues to deal with new regulations and border issues which require support.

IMTA strategy director, Katrina Walsh agreed: “We will be following the election with interest, particularly on what each of the major political parties has to say on key member issues such as trade policy, the border, food policy and sustainability. We hope that trade associations and members will still be able to receive answers on operational questions during the pre-election period of sensitivity, as ongoing engagement with officials is crucial on certain trade topics.”

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