Will disjointed thinking destroy us?

By Bethan Grylls

- Last updated on GMT

The Business Leaders' Forum is an annual event hosted by Food Manufacture that invites leaders to problem solve and knowledge-share
The Business Leaders' Forum is an annual event hosted by Food Manufacture that invites leaders to problem solve and knowledge-share

Related tags Business labour shortage Health Sustainability Innovation Regulation

By 2025, it’s predicted that there will be more than 75m ‘smart’ connected devices. Yet, despite our instantaneous, online lifestyles, we are still experiencing a sense of 'disconnect' between the food industry, government and consumers.

This year’s Food Manufacture Business Leaders’ Forum explored a number of a topics – from health and ultra processed foods, to what we need from the next government, to risk management and compliance. But the theme that kept cropping up throughout the day was a lack of unity.

As always, the annual event invites manufacturing C-suites and other influential voices from food and drink to talk openly about important matters under Chatham House rules.*

Food Manufacture's Business Leaders' Forum June 2024 is sponsored by Amber, Aptean & Tracegains.

Health disconnect

With ultra processed foods​ being the hot ticket among national newspapers, podcasts, influencers and even government, it was only the right that the Forum gave space for the leaders to share their own views.

What was clear from the off is that no one has a clear-cut definition of UPFs (even if they claim they do) and that most of the discussion has, so far, been driven by mainstream media sensationalism.

Leadership coach and industry consultant, Jon Poole, described this aptly: “[UPF] is becoming an increasingly talked about topic in the media and on social media and yet it is clear that there is still no consensus over what the term really means.”

“There’s these conspiracies going on in the food industry,”​ one delegate contended on the day, “that the food industry has designed products to make people eat lots of them [as much as possible]. But we tend to design products based on what people like eating. It’s unlikely that food businesses are going to stop making products people like.”

Indeed, arguments made by the likes of Henry Dimbleby and Chris van Tulleken have raised issue with the ‘addictiveness’ of certain foods due to their mouthfeel.

While one might argue that a balance can be struck between ‘healthy’ and ‘tastes good’, finding that equilibrium is not a simple task.

The reality is that processing has its place – for example to create free-from products, to make foods cheaper and to extend shelf-life.

In fact, many of the advantages of processing are enabling the other asks of consumers – more choice for hypersensitive individuals, affordability and less waste. And as one attendee pointed out, the latter of those will be especially important as we move to less stable types of packaging (away from plastic to cardboard, for example).

“When it gets soggy on the shelf, who's complaining?”

The food sector is not unfamiliar to having such hotly debated conversations, with numerous ingredients having been thrust into the spotlight and tarnished with the ‘bad health’ brush previously. Anyone remember the 1980 low fat ideology? 

And as another delegate pointed out: “Get your nutrition right rather than getting distracted into conversations about aspartame.” ​Of course, they were referring to the more recent chatter over the sweetener’s safety, which was later dismissed by the World Health Organization.​ Interestingly, but probably unsurprisingly, that news stretched across far fewer column inches than the initial spin.    

Much like fashion, food is at the mercy of trends.

“We used to fortify the product with 11 different minerals because that was the big thing, then we made them organic, then we made them local…” ​an attendee recalled. “The wheel just goes round.”

The problem is that food is more complicated than leopard print and florals, an opinion which was aptly echoed by another leader: “How do you deliver these more complex measures and the whole – factual – debate?”

“You have people saying, ‘my mother's recipe didn't have citric acid in it, it had lemon juice’. And I'm going, yeah, but how many lemons can a person squeeze? There is this disconnect between consumers and what needs to be in their product.”

The consensus of the room is that the term ‘ultra processed food’ is unhelpful – although, it was acknowledged that we are somewhat stuck with it because it’s catchy and widely known.

“I don't think we can fight against the term, even though I hate it.”

However, it was pointed out from a manufacturer’s point of view, a more useful way to look at it is perhaps “unnecessarily processed”.

Rather than following hasty judgements made by folk through a plethora of non-scientific sources, ask yourself “is there a valid reason for that ingredient – if yes, then stick with it”.

While another attendee said from a consumer point of view, eating “everything in moderation”​ is probably the “simplest message”​ that we need to drive home.

Government and industry disconnect

The conversation steered to whether UK Government should intervene on health – and with both Labour and Conservative making promises to clamp down or investigate UPFs further, it could be that we do see new policy emerging post July 4th​.   

Despite this, there have been conflicting news, suggesting there has been a lack of attention placed on food during the election campaign​thus far – a topic which was raised at the Forum.

Of the six areas that industry figureheads such as the NFU and FDF are rallying for, ultra processed foods is not mentioned. Rather, they ask for focus to be upon tackling obesity and health inequalities, alongside other issues such as easing trade barriers, giving way to investment opportunities, and helping industry to achieve net zero.

For some at the Forum, the Government stepping in and introducing health policies will be a welcomed move that will help create unity among consumers, retailers and manufacturers. While others aren’t so sure.

“Government has to work out how it's going to educate people on what food looks like,” ​a member of the Forum community voiced.

But another countered that more regulation is not necessary, and that the industry is responsible enough. Overwhelm as a result of regulation was in fact the main topic of last year’s Forum.

The Forum gave opportunities for tables to workshop challenges

“We don't need more regulations, we need more dialogue. There should be more interaction between government and the industry.”

A Minister for Food – which has been something industry has been rallying for some time now​ – was raised as one way to resolve this, particularly given the siloed way food is governed.

“We need consistency in policy and messaging. There seems to be a lot of mixed signals or messaging that's coming out depending on what party or time of year it is.This is leading to ‘soundbites’ in an effort to win votes or to win trust, rather than long-term initiatives that are actually followed through.”

Another person in the room added that while policy can be useful, there is a fear around misguided invention and unintended consequences as a result of disjointed thinking.

Speaking with Poole on this matter, he agreed that government has a role to play, but added: “We should not place too much emphasis or reliance on waiting for government to solve our issues – we as an industry should look to work proactively to find solutions.”​ 

Tim Davies, founder of DuelFuel, also offered his two cents: “Whilst many challenges come with the territory of operating in a fiercely price sensitive and competitive sector (price pressure, margin pressure, competitive forces etc), many fall outside the usual ‘cut and thrust’ of business. These larger ‘iceberg’ challenges generate considerable uncertainty for the industry, and can only be alleviated by swift government action and/or intervention on issues such as UPF, labour shortages through Brexit and the administrative burden of exporting (Brexit).

“The food industry has thus far not spoken as one in seeking government action on these issues and it must do so to ensure government hears and understands the full voice and weight of the industry. Food Manufacture is leading the way by bringing leaders from the industry together to act with common purpose on these iceberg challenges.”

Another delegate agreed, but also warned that an audience with the UK Government was often a rushed affair, recalling a time they managed to and only got three minutes. “[If you get in front of them] you've got to really plan what you are going to say,”​ they stated.

Speaking to Food Manufacture after the event, Josh Tomlinson, procurement, risk and supply director for Amber, a sponsor of this year’s Forum, said the deliberation around where ‘health responsibility’ lies is similar to debates happening within the energy sector.

“Some of the discussion centred on the responsibility for healthy choices and how this had a knock-on effect, particularly for a public asset like the NHS, i.e. does responsibility sit with the consumer, the manufacturer or the Government? To me, there is a similar debate in energy around whether it’s up to the consumer to reduce demand for fossil fuels, or whether it’s up to suppliers/the government to enable/enforce this in order to protect the environment.”

“We had interesting conversations about the upcoming general elections and what we expect to come from them," ​added Seamus Kerrigan, manufacturing director at Coca-Cola EuroPacific Partner ​(CCEP), as he, too, reflected on the days events.

"​For CCEP, our key focus is on the introduction of an interoperable Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). It has a crucial role to play in influencing consumer behaviour, increasing recycling rates and unlocking more recycled content, but the industry and government must work together to make the introduction of a well-designed DRS possible.”

Data disconnect

The ways in which food producers are pulled – with consumers, retailers and regulation often tugging in different directions – means there is an inordinate amount of pressure on producers to collect lots of data – and very quickly.

This has, for example, resulted in there being around 400 different kinds of eco labels and, often, rather expensive ways of doing things such as, lifecycle assessments, which aren’t always feasible for the SMEs.

“Everyone's trying to achieve the same thing, but we were working on our silos, we're duplicating all this work,”​ a delegate raised. “When you do look at all the different businesses that are out there, everyone does stuff slightly differently.”

The lack of harmony in data has been a widely known issue of contention in food and drink for several years now – and this has been particularly evident in sustainability. Greenwashing has become a familiar turn of phrase in the public’s lexicon as such.  

Now pressure is intensifying, as new regulations such as the CSRD and EUDR emerge and Net Zero deadlines loom closer.

“The most important of the challenges we face has to be the environment,” ​Neale Powell-Cook, owner of Golden Acre Foods, told Food Manufacture. “It is complex, there is a shortage of informed staff with practical skills and, while there may be rewards for premium green products, we really need more regulation which will be efficient in requiring positive changes and a level playing field.

“There is a mountain of changes coming through in Europe that are very likely to affect those of us who trade with Europe; and, with the prospect of a new government, it seems likely that similar rules will be implemented in UK anyway.”

Amaad Ahmed, Amber’s net zero lead, agreed the pressure is extraordinary, but added that for any concerned industry folk, the firm can “support with untangling this and helping with various compliance obligations”.

Bethan Grylls, Food Manufacture editor, led the conversation

Dan McGlynn, senior account executive at TraceGains, which also sponsored the event this year, believes the industry wants “to do the right thing” ​but affordable access to reliable, timely and validated data and insights is holding it back.

“[We need to] come together to adopt a network approach to sharing data, improving transparency and trust,” ​he told Food Manufacture.

Rahul Kale, international business director at Vibrant Foods, said that cost was a hinderance, with many producers forced to put important issues on the backburner: “The biggest challenge I see in the future if the cost of borrowing goes up then how will companies manage the balance between maintaining profits and shareholder value without reducing their allocation of resources towards causes like ESG?

“Although inflation is on a decline, the general climate is of a ‘doom and gloom’, and it is not likely to improve for rest of 2024.”

Nick Behari, country manager for UK&I at Vion Food Group, concurred, stating that with all the issues explored at the forum, many decisions “come down to the size of your wallet”.

“It was interesting to hear the different approaches to the pressures of the green agenda by small companies and large companies,”​ Adam Starkey, chair at Green Gourmet, added, as he reflected on the Forum later.

“It made me realise that whilst smaller companies are focused on margin and reducing costs if they want to win contracts with the global companies then they need to make sure that they have policies in place.”

As a workshop exercise, the delegates were asked how the sector could build in resilience.

Among the ideas shared, this one stood out: “Simplicity as a strategy for resilience”.

“Sometimes there will come a point where we have to implement something really quickly, really urgently. I would suggest that we innately design in simplicity.”

People disconnect

A reoccurring topic of the Forum for a few years has been the issue of recruitment and retention. As captured in a Food Manufacture story published last week,​ securing talent has been a concern many have been forced to neglect.

“I don't think it's realistic for smaller businesses to give this as big a priority as we should be or want to. Being profitable, staying alive, pretty much takes precedence,”​ one attendee sadly admitted.

Lee Walker, senior manager in solution consulting at Aptean, another sponsor of this year’s event, said he was surprised by the extent to which smaller companies are struggling with recruitment due to “other pressing priorities”.

“This underscored the need for more streamlined and efficient recruitment processes.”

He continued: “The industry's biggest challenge is navigating the complex web of regulations and the inefficiencies introduced by factors like Brexit. This complexity often forces companies to be reactive rather than strategic. Addressing these regulatory hurdles with robust compliance tools and proactive risk management is crucial.

"The biggest opportunity lies in leveraging technology to drive efficiency and resilience. By investing in automation, digital workflows, and data-driven insights, companies can not only reduce their reliance on manual labour but also enhance their ability to respond to market demands and regulatory changes swiftly."

Although automation is certainly a good opportunity for the labour crisis, the food sector will still need to plug the human skills gap to some degree.  

Perceptions around the food industry were raised at previous Forums, ideas that manufacturing is a ‘smelly’ and ‘undesirable’ environment. This year, focusing on what the leaders have done since October 2023, perceptions were highlighted again. This time, it was focused on the repositioning of adverts and the power of language.

“You have to have adverts which are compelling and talking about the science and tech,”​ a delegate suggested. “I heard about a farm in Lincolnshire who were looking for tractor drivers, so they posted advert, ‘tractor drivers wanted’, and got zero applications.

“They re-posted the advert, but this time they wrote ‘advanced data technologists required’, and they got loads of applications. They then brought all these young people in, they showed everything, explained the data sets and all remote monitoring and everything else that goes on in the modern tractor. People don't realise the biggest issue is ‘how do you bring it to life’.”

On a similar vein, CCEP says it has been looking at recruitment in a new way, as Kerrigan explained: "​I was pleased to speak about the challenge of tackling gender balance in manufacturing, and CCEP’s new recruitment approach – which sparked great conversation amongst attendees.

"Rather than solely relying on experience to be the contributing factor for bringing new recruits on board, we’ve expanded our process to hire based on potential and ability to learn. We’ve introduced practical exercises that help identify potential skills and unique abilities that new hires could bring to the table, as well as regular assessments to ensure people are equipped with the right resources and equipment to perform the job well.​"

Whilst much of the conversation focused on those just starting their career, another attendee pointed out that work also needs to be done around those starting families.

“Parental leave is rubbish,”​ they argued. “We need to be offering parental leave to anyone with a small child, regardless of their gender, regardless of how long they worked for that company. Some places are doing it and as a result families feel cared for, they feel like they matter to that workplace and don’t feel like they have to struggle through to make things work and burn the candle at both ends.”​"

So will a lack of joined up thinking and independent strides (i.e. yet another eco label) ultimately be our undoing as an industry? I'll let you decide that one, but will leave you with the idiom: Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Praise for the Forum...Join the community!

This year’s Food Manufacture’s Business Leaders’ Forum has received great praise again from its delegates, as a must-attend session for food and drink producers.

You can apply to join the community by registering here​ – as part of this, you will receive an exclusive leaders newsletter six times a year, alongside an invitation to our future events.

“This was my first time attending the Forum and speaking on behalf of Coca-Cola Europacific Partners. I found the event to be an excellent way for a range of organisations across the industry to come together and share their insights and learnings. I was particularly fond of the academic participation at this year’s forum, which brought great balance to the discussions. There was a lot of intel on the broader food agenda, and it was eye opening for me to see the challenges from other manufacturers in the food and drink space, while hearing from academics about the research being done.”​ - Kerrigan.

“Food Manufacture’s recent Business Leaders Forum was a much needed and warmly welcomed initiative that brought senior executives from all walks of the food industry together to raise and discuss issues of common concern and interest.”​ – Davies.

“Whenever I attend this forum I am not sure what I am going to get out of it. But after doing it for many years, I can say that every time I have come away thinking it was a day well spent. It tends to be snippets of information that you pick up from the presentations or in conversation which change the way you view things.”​ – Starkey.

"The Forum was an excellent platform for fostering meaningful dialogue and collaboration among industry stakeholders. It was particularly beneficial to hear first-hand the challenges and opportunities that companies are facing, which helps us ensure that our technology solutions are directly aligned with the evolving needs of the market. We look forward to continuing these important conversations and driving innovation in the food and beverage industry.”​ – Walker.

Mark Lumsdon-Taylor, partner & head of sustainability ESG for MHA and founder of the Rural Policy Group, led an exclusive presentation in the afternoon

“The Food Manufacture’s Business Leaders' Forum is an exemplary event that significantly contributes to the advancement of the industry. The networking opportunities are outstanding, allowing participants to connect with peers, share insights, and foster valuable business relationships. The guests feel comfortable in an open forum to provide in-depth opinions on various critical topics, latest trends and offering a collaborative environment for exchanging ideas and strategies to overcome industry challenges.”​ – Ramona Hazan, founder of Ramona’s Kitchen.

“Thanks for your excellent chairing and great organisation. It was great to meet other leaders who are passionate about the food industry and to consider responses to the challenges and trends that are developing. Views in the room were quite varied, which helped stretch the thought process.”​ – Powell-Cook.

“I’ve been attending the BLF for many years and regard it as a must-attend event to meet with like-minded business leaders. Any leader only sees part of the world in which they work, so this is a valuable opportunity to gain a sense of what others in the food industry are experiencing.”​ – Poole.

“Thanks for arranging the Business Leader’s forum for food manufacturers. It was an extremely engaging and energising event which I thoroughly enjoyed.”​ – Kale.

“It was great to see leaders from the industry come together, discuss openly pressing topics and challenges and potential solutions.”​ – McGlynn.

“I enjoyed the fact that there was representation from different sizes of corporations and got to understand the different barriers they each faced due to the size of their respective business.”​ – Ahmed.

"The BLF is a great opportunity to take a step back and get a birds’ eye view of some of the macro trends of concern to the food industry both now and in the future."​ – Rod Addy, director general of the Provision Trade Federation. 

Step inside the June 2024 Forum here, and listen to what some of the experts had to say.

*Those named in this piece gave explicit permission.

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