Political Print: Foodservice on the fringes yet again

The government’s latest policy forum is a gathering of the same old, same old. It’s time for the sector to stand up and be heard, writes Nick Hughes.

The government’s new Food and Drink Sector Council met for the first time at the end of January, an occasion DEFRA marked by sharing a convivial picture of the new group in session.

The aim of the council – to boost skills and productivity, and make the industry more competitive – will be familiar to anyone who has taken a passing interest in the government’s food playbook from recent years.

Another all too familiar trait is a lack of representation from the out-of-home sector. Out of 16 council members just one, Merlin Entertainments, could be (loosely) classified as a foodservice business. And with Merlin’s representative, its CEO, Nick Varney, unable to attend the first meeting, a foodservice voice was entirely absent from the room.

With the greatest of respect to Merlin, selling food to punters at visitor attractions is hardly representative of a sector that contributes £32.4 billion in value to the UK economy every year according to DEFRA’s own statistics. Where are the likes of Compass Group, Bidvest, McDonald’s and Wetherspoon? And where are the food tech pioneers such as Just Eat and Deliveroo that are ripping up the rulebook about how the public consumes food out-of-home?

With a few exceptions, such as the snacks brand Propercorn, the list of members reads like a fraternity of the same old industry bigwigs – Sainsbury’s, Nestlé, Premier Foods, ABF – and their representative bodies, which in all likelihood will share analogous views on how to make the industry more resilient, sustainable and competitive.

The Food and Drink Sector Council may in practice achieve very little. Those who have participated in such steering groups over the years could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at the prospect of yet another council that sets out with lofty ambitions only for its recommendations to wither on the vine. (Can anybody think of a significant policy shift deriving from the Food Industry Sustainability Strategy or the Green Food Project?)

But this is about more than what the Food and Drink Sector Council might achieve. It’s about the government’s attitude towards foodservice and the weight it gives to the views of the sector. While others see the food system as the complex configuration that it is, DEFRA appears to view it largely as a linear chain from farmer to processor to retailer. If these groups are allowed to set the industry agenda, foodservice businesses are destined to remain policy takers rather than policy makers.

The sector needs to be more forceful in asserting its significance. It employs 1.6 million people in the UK – over half a million more than retail and more than 10 times the number employed in food manufacturing. But when it comes to influencing policy, foodservice still defers to its two siblings.

Opportunities to shape policy are few and far between. This month came confirmation that the government’s long-awaited Food and Farming Plan has been canned (one can only feel sympathy for the many experts who have devoted their time and energy to help shape it). With the draft agriculture bill expected to be published imminently, that leaves the Food and Drink Sector Council as one of the few remaining forums through which businesses can bend the ear of ministers.

A DEFRA spokesperson says that membership of the council will be kept under review to ensure appropriate representation from across the sector. But foodservice mustn’t wait to be asked to come into the picture. It needs to start photobombing the shot.

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