The sector risks being forgotten if it doesn’t get its act together and start lobbying hard, writes David Burrows.
Managing Brexit will need the whole food industry – farmers, food manufacturers and retailers – to find a single voice with which to lobby the government, said the National Farmers Union director general, Terry Jones, in a recent interview with Food Manufacture.
What about caterers? His omission of an industry worth £87.6 billion in terms of consumer expenditure could have been an honest mistake. However, Jones also noted that December’s open letter to Theresa May “really got some cut-through” with more than 70 “real businesses, rather than associations” outlining what the food sector needs on trade and labour when the UK divorces from the bloc. The supply industry, he claimed, “has come together very quickly”.
I beg to differ. There are certainly some big names on the letter coordinated by the NFU and collectively they turn over £92 billion and employ almost a million people. Not to be sniffed at. But cast your eyes over the list and it quickly becomes obvious that foodservice is underrepresented. No Compass. No Sodexo. No Whitbread. No McDonald’s. Have they been forgotten? The fact Apetito is there suggests foodservice businesses were approached, so why the (almost) collective silence?
Catering companies tend to be a reticent bunch – especially those with little high-street presence – but the sector is at risk of being forgotten as Brexit lobbying intensifies. This is deeply troubling. Can the British Hospitality Association be left to fly the flag? That’s a risky tactic: food isn’t mentioned once in the organisation’s 13-page Brexit strategy response and – as Kirsten Williams suggests on the previous page – it’s even struggling to be heard on issues such as labour as more powerful lobbying groups clamour to shape Brexit in their own interests.
The NFU remains at the top of that particular tree – and the fact it managed to cajole the likes of Sainsbury’s, Weetabix, Cargill and ABP to sign its letter suggests those in manufacturing and retail know it too. But while the food supply chain cosies up to push a collective agenda, catering firms, restaurants and foodservice businesses appear to have been left out in the cold.
So my message is: “Start standing up for yourselves.” Foodservice should not play second fiddle and can add considerable weight to those lobbying for a sustainable Brexit deal. On many economic levels the sector competes toe-to-toe with retail and manufacturing: gross value added from food manufacturers and grocers is £26.5 billion and £30.4 billion, while for catering services it’s £29 billion. Restaurants, cafés and canteens also employ more people (1.65m) than retailers (1.16m) and manufacturers (411,000) combined. Rather than duck and dive in the shadows the sector needs to get in the spotlight and put up a fight. The future of food in foodservice depends on it.