The UK food and drink industry needs to work more closely with other concerned parties to ensure that issues such as nutrition, food safety and other public health concerns are correctly tackled. This was the message of the UK Food and Drink Federation's new president, John Sunderland, at the annual President's Dinner last night.
Working together is the only way to ensure that the UK food and drink industry continues to prosper, he said, stressing that the importance of the industry within the UK economy could not be underplayed.
"The UK food and drink manufacturing industry has a gross output of over £66 billion, accounting for 14 per cent of total manufacturing. We employ around half a million people - about 13 per cent of the UK's manufacturing workforce. We buy two thirds of all the UK's agricultural output and export around £9 billion (€13bn) worth of food and drink produce."
A number of factors posed a real threat to the food and drink industry, he said, but the FDF was working closely with government and other organisations to combat this threat.
On the question of nutrition, Sunderland said that the FDF took the view that education was the key to tackling problems such as obesity. "Given that - safely prepared - there is no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet, the key to unlocking this conundrum must be information and education," he said.
He said that FDF's initiatives in this area included the creation of a CD-Rom to help schools spread the '5-a-day' message, a scheme which had been highly successful.
The FDF had also worked closely with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) on working to reduce sodium levels in food, he said. "UK bread manufacturers, for example, have reduced salt across their entire product range by a quarter since the 1980s. And we are now working with the FSA in other sectors to identify products where reductions in sodium have been achieved and where further reductions might be possible."
But food safety is the most important challenge for the food industry, and was an excellent example of how the industry needed to work together to achieve its aims, Sunderland said.
"The industry has joined forces with government departments, the FSA, environmental health officers and other partners to promote greater general awareness of food safety. The FDF's Food Link programme has been the major plank in this strategy and our National Food Safety Week achieved record participation and publicity in 2002. Independent evaluation showed that media coverage reached 75 million opportunities to see, hear or read important food safety messages in the week."
Commenting on the proposed reform of the EU's Common Agricultural Policy ( or "the tyranny of the developed world's artificial support for its own agricultural produce at the expense of the developing world," as he put it), Sunderland said he was frustrated by lack of consensus amongst the European Union's Member States and the preoccupation of some with their own farmer voters, but that the proposals were at least a step in the right direction.
"We have to recognise that the UK and our industry is part of the global supply chain, and that we have to be internationally competitive. As a major exporter it is essential that our industry can continue to compete for new and existing markets outside Europe. The location of future investment from multinational companies as the EU enlarges will be a major issue for the UK.
"Given our island status and distance from the agricultural centres of gravity in an enlarged Europe, a key factor is going to be our ability to continue to source competitively-priced agricultural raw materials, produced to appropriate standards in the UK or nearby in the EU."
In conclusion, he returned to the main theme of the evening: partnerships. "Neither we as companies nor our industry can operate in isolation, nor would we wish to. The FDF acts as an excellent medium for the industry as we reach out to all our stakeholders in the increasingly complex world in which we operate.
"Partnerships are the key to the success of the FDF's activities on behalf of our industry- partnerships not just with DEFRA and the FSA, but with retailers, the food service sector, wholesalers, farmers, teachers and public health specialists."
In an increasingly cut throat food and drink market, persuading companies to work together for the good of all is not an easy thing - but it is vital if companies are to meet the challenges of that market.