Navigating regulation is a daily concern for food and drink manufacturers, with the introduction of complex new rules relating to safety, health and trade a common occurrence.
While these regulations play a critical role in ensuring quality levels and creating a fair playing field for competition, they can also lead to unintended consequences and downright confusion. On top of this, the fallout from Brexit has created more grey areas and as a result, more for food and drink businesses to keep abreast of.
In an open discussion at this month’s Business Leaders' Forum (5 October 2023), directors and senior management personnel from across the sector were able to share their concerns and work together to find answers.
Clarity is key
A common thread throughout the comments of numerous business leaders in attendance was the call for regulatory clarity. Whether speaking on behalf of large or small organisations, there was a sense that the UK Government is not providing the support that businesses need, or guidance on how overlapping rules fit together. Imports and exports were an area of particular concern, with several attendees admitting that the costs associated with trading into the EU had become prohibitive. The time spent on regulatory compliance by many businesses is also disrupting their day-to-day operations and putting undue strain on staff.
Gideon Ashworth, the technical director at Bart Ingredients and technical chair at the Seasoning and Spice Association (SSA), spoke to Food Manufacture after the debate's conclusion and drilled down on the issues created by “regulatory divergence” between the UK and EU.
“We can manage the current levels of divergence from a regulatory perspective as individual businesses and as an industry, but it doesn’t help our commerciality, it doesn’t help us import from around the world and it makes things harder for our suppliers who have to learn the difference between UK and EU regulations,” Ashworth explained.
“It makes me concerned that Britain will become a dumping ground for non-EU compliant products and that then being sold on in good faith and exported to Europe where it is either blocked at the border or implicated in a recall.”
Regulations that fit
New rules on the promotion of products with high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) content came into effect in October 2022, prompting manufacturers across the industry to respond. Now a year on, attendees at the Business Leaders Forum questioned how these regulations fit into a wider strategy and argued that the onus to promote healthy eating has been placed squarely at the door of food and drink producers.
One attendee called for more system level thinking from Government, which takes into account all the different factors that play into dietary choices. They felt that these rules should be supported through better quality food education and research into healthier, sustainable ingredients. Other attendees felt that while the rules had limited the scope of products that manufacturers could promote, it had also created some opportunities due to more consumers seeking out lower calorie, better-for-you options than in the past.
Another area where attendees agreed that the existing rules did not fit was in the field of auditing and reporting. It was argued that due to the analogue nature of most environmental and financial audits, they can be gamified and do not portray an accurate representation of the businesses that are truly compliant. Meanwhile, preparing for inspections is time intensive and draining for manufacturers. Attendees called for more audits to be conducted digitally, which would allow for real-time, efficient and accurate data collection.
The Business Leaders' Forum October 2023 event was sponsored by the Welsh Government, E.ON and Accruent.
Call for collaboration
While concerns about the regulatory landscape facing food and drink manufacturers in the UK remain, attendees felt that open communication and industry-wide collaboration could play a positive role. If confusion and uncertainty exists, the opportunity to lean on a network of experienced and capable people working in the same sector is sure to be valuable. However, if this is to work, it requires businesses to be willing to support competitors in the interest of the industry’s future prosperity.
Ashworth summarised this sentiment while talking to Food Manufacture: “We are commercial competitors but need to collaborate on all these different challenges. The industry is good at collaborating, but it needs the right forum.”
To Ashworth and several other attendees, collaboration is essential if members of the UK food and drink manufacturing sector are to be viewed as expert players on a global scale. Without the support of other EU member states, businesses need to work together in a way that best represents what the industry as a whole is hoping to achieve.
“Whether you believed in Brexit or not, it has now happened and we still need to maintain commercial capabilities and business growth,” said Ashworth.
“We need to bring a lot of viewpoints into the melting pot. That way we can look at the different directions that the industry can take and create more alignment within the sector.”
Alara Wholefoods managing director Alex Smith presented his vision for collaboration across the entire food sector through his Knowledge Garden project. Envisioned as a sustainable development project in Camden, Smith believes it could act as a hub that promotes the sharing of ideas and technology between companies.