Best of British

British sourcing is a great idea but is that all it is? Are suppliers and operators doing anything to promote it or has the idea degenerated into a cliché? Footprint asked some major movers and shakers in the food chain what is really going on.

 

A lot of noise is made about local sourcing but is it really happening? Is it, perhaps, something that everybody acknowledges as a ‘good thing’ and wants to be associated with but which has become, sadly, just a convenient green vehicle to hitch their sustainable PR bandwagon to?

 

Absolutely not says Heidi Easby, Group Food Development & Innovation Director, Brakes. Easby is emphatic that local sourcing is not a cliché but very much an integral part of today’s foodservice industry and one that Brakes is in deadly earnest about. “Buying best in season British products is viable at all levels of business – it only becomes an issue when seasonality is ignored. Depending on the business need and volume/demand from the customer, Brakes will source bespoke products, and that can include local or regional products,” she affirms. “And the credit crunch hasn’t affected demand for locally sourced product – sales in our regional and British product areas have continued to grow during 2009 and have aided tender wins.

 

“Supporting British farming and sustainable development of British food manufacturing is a vital part of customer choice, and will therefore remain a significant part of Brakes’ offering. While many customers seemed to start off from the position that they wanted everything to be sourced locally, the reality for a high percentage now is to support British production, and eat what is in season and good from Britain. It is all about taking a common sense approach and achieving a balance,” she says

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Ian Booth Technical Director at fresh produce distributor Reynolds says he has also seen a growing demand for local sourcing over the past couple of years, along with requirements for assurance of produce provided to customers. “This generally seems to be led by an increased consumer awareness of where their food is coming from, and the influence that they are increasingly able to have on influencing this. This would appear to be led by environmental drivers. Within the food service industry we have the opportunity to monitor the consumer attitude within the retail sector. This would potentially have an impact on foodservice when people eat out of the home,” says Booth.

 

Easby agrees and reckons clear information about how and from where the product has been sourced will help encourage customers to plump for locally sourced food. “The use of independent accreditations and awards will help customers and their consumers better see the wood for the trees,” she says. She believes that when British products are supported by accreditations such as Red Tractor, customers become even more interested in the concept. ”They like to know how their food has been produced, and where it comes from and they want the assurance that the food is safe, sustainable and sourced responsibly,” she says.

 

This is a view shared by Thomas Jelley of Sodexo who is also a champion of the Red Tractor scheme, among others, saying: “Since 2007 we have built up the number of Red Tractor certified lines available to our clients and customers to over 200 and it is something we are proud of.”

 

As you might expect, Jelley, as Corporate Citizenship Manager of Sodexo, also strongly refutes any suggestion that British sourcing as an issue has degenerated to cliché status. “There is nothing clichéd about talk of British sourcing and provenance. If anything, the issue’s continued popularity is evidence of the complexity and the multitude of ways in which it can be framed.

 

“In practice, a sustainable procurement strategy that includes British sourcing and provenance makes a lot of sense. The UK produces a wide variety of produce across the seasons. These are nutritionally and culturally important to our clients and customers and, given the geographic spread of Sodexo’s business, UK produce is economically important in the communities in which we operate. One of the most basic food stuffs is bread and we are able to source fresh bread and pastries from within a 30 miles radius of most UK locations thanks to our partnership with Enterprise Bakeries,” he says.

 

However, when it comes to providing seasonal produce, it is just that – seasonal: so how to get a balance in the winter months when diners still crave their exotic fruit and veg? Back to Ian Booth who says: “With regards to UK seasonal products, further awareness of products that are available and over what period would help to allow consumers an informed choice. Is the consumer aware that a number of products available through the winter and spring months are stored, such as onions, carrots and cabbage?

 

“Within foodservice, demand for local produce is led by the needs of the chef as to the menu and his proposition to customers and consumers. Chefs have the task of producing an appealing dish, which also needs to be competitive with other operators’ offerings. Consumers’ expectations are led partly by previous consumption, and partly by awareness of products,” says Booth. “Where a wider range of exotic produce is sourced within the retail sector there is an expectation of availability within foodservice. There are also exotic products now that would not have been generally imported 70 years ago, i.e. bananas but are now an accepted product in a fruit basket. Within catering, there is an obvious trend towards local product, but consumers will only choose these if they have a full understanding of the sourcing, and are provided with the information to make the balanced choice on what they wish to eat.”

 

Caroline Fry, Managing Director, Charlton House believes passionately in sourcing British and cries: “Cliché? Absolutely not. It is a subject close to the hearts of everyone within Charlton House, and particularly David Cavalier, our food director and Michelin-starred chef, who has consistently championed the use of local, seasonal and sustainable foods for the past decade.

 

“We will always buy seasonal UK produce when it makes environmental and commercial sense. For example, UK apples out of season are more damaging to the environment than shipping apples from abroad. Would we really want to stop buying from other countries that are reliant on export to survive and would our customers really be happy not to eat bananas again? However, environmental implications of transporting food across vast distances to reach our kitchens are also an important consideration, which often goes hand-in-hand with our purchasing decisions. Our aim is to have at least five British fruit and vegetables and two meat products on our menus each week.

 

Sodexo’s Jelley drops in this thought: “To some, British sourcing and provenance is about supporting British farmers; to others it’s about traceability and food. Increasingly, the debate is also about food security and resilience: what will happen the next time we see a fuel price spike, would we cope better with reliance on British produce than produce from further afield? Food is neither produced nor consumed in a vacuum: it has strong economic, cultural, social and environmental aspects, sourcing and provenance touch on all of these. For some products there is also an animal welfare benefit to sourcing British food, for example there are significantly higher welfare standards in the UK pig meat sector than elsewhere - we source 100 per cent of our fresh pork from Red Tractor accredited British farms.

 

“Clients and customers are increasingly interested in sustainable food procurement issues. Owing to the variety of ways in which these can be framed, we are under no illusion as to the importance they place on sustainable food procurement. This is especially true when you consider that half our UK business is with the public sector,” says Jelley. He adds that different clients place different levels of emphasis on British sourcing and provenance and that he is seeing more and more clients actively trying to balance the additional costs that are sometimes associated with British food with the demand for it. “It is worth remembering that British sourcing and provenance is just one aspect of Sodexo’s ‘Better Tomorrow Plan’ sustainable procurement commitment which also covers other sustainable procurement issues such as seasonality, sustainable fish and seafood and fair trade,” says Jelley.

 

“The benefits of British sourcing and provenance to clients and customers depend on how they frame the issue but one thing is for certain: almost everyone has a view on where their food comes from and how it got to their plate! To Sodexo, British sourcing and provenance is just one of the many ways we interact with the economic, cultural, social and environmental fabric of the UK, a market in which we employ over 40,000 people, serve a million meals a day and which accounts for some 10 per cent of Sodexo’s global turnover. By providing information on where products are sourced from our customers learn more about food and this may impact their consumer choices at home,” says Jelley.

 

Getting really local, Jill McCarthy, Project Manager, Select Lincolnshire is working hard to promote Lincolnshire produce and support local farmers, growers and producers. A development of the Lincolnshire Forum for Agriculture and Horticulture – a partnership between the private and public sector – Select Lincolnshire is funded by Lincolnshire County Council and was set up in 2005 in response to a Government drive to ensure UK farming has a sustainable future and is in line with Defra’s stated objectives of ‘Working in Partnership’. The Select Lincolnshire brand has become

an established aid for food and drink companies from the Humber to the Wash, helping businesses to identify new routes to market.

 

“A consumer awareness raising strategy is seen as a key strand of Select Lincolnshire’s marketing strategy and will provide the focal point for consumers to tap into the drivers for buying local and/or buying British. The point of difference that Select offers consumers is: provenance and quality,” says McCarthy.

 

As part of its marketing activities and following Select’s attendance at the Restaurant Show in 2008 and 2009, Select Lincolnshire has developed links with London chefs who have visited the county to sample the produce for themselves. The chefs’ main criteria is to be able to source British ingredients to use in their restaurants.

 

Research by the University of Lincoln indicates that 20 per cent of all of the nation’s food ‘touches’ the South Holland district of the county every year. Lincolnshire is the UK’s largest producer of potatoes and brassicas, salads and peas as well as being the largest poultry producer. “And you can add Lincoln Red beef, Lincolnshire sausages, plum bread, beer, cheese and jams to the list, too,” says McCarthy.

 

Back at Charlton House a huge commitment has been made to buying British wherever and whenever possible. Fry explains: “We can demonstrate our on-going commitment to buying British produce through the annual data which we supply to DEFRA. For example, our figures for 2009 show that 92 per cent of our beef is British, 82 per cent of the legumes we purchase are British, 90 per cent of our potatoes are UK grown and 35 per cent of soft fruit. We believe that it’s very important to be as food secure as possible but when it’s in season and when it makes sense. Some public communication channels can end up misleading people as to what is possible and best for environment, local economy and the world’s population.

 

However, Fry calls on suppliers to do more to help operators achieve more by looking long and hard at cost, saying: “One of the major on-going challenges is cost and we urge suppliers to do more to help us to realise our goals. At the end of the day, we are running a business so the commercial reality is that we all have to work together if we are going to make a difference. There are some customers and clients (and dare I say specialists) who don’t appreciate the implications and the wider picture, which can cause issues if product costs are not kept realistic. We do need consistent professional advice that ensures caterers can get what they need at the price they need,” says Fry.

 

“To show our commitment to buying British produce we ran a hugely successful campaign throughout our restaurants last summer. ‘Britain’s Got Great Food!’ promoted and celebrated regional dishes from throughout the UK and resulted in an overall sales increase of 8 per cent across our staff restaurants. The idea grew from our ongoing drive to promote seasonal British produce,” says Fry.

 

However, Is there likely to come a time when demand becomes so great British producers wouldn’t be able to keep up with it? Over to Ian Booth: “The effect of climate change and global warming are potentially allowing an extended season (early spring and later winter). For example, the extension of the British season for some vegetables (i.e. carrots by up to one week) has increased the number of new buyers into the marketplace, who rely on buying British.”

 

All in all it does seem that customers are being supplied with what they want in terms of locally sourced produce – the ones who want it get it. As Heidi Easby says it is all about providing choice: as more and more customers demand British produce more will become available so long as people are realistic about seasonality.

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