The Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Executive Ian Wright has been busy over the past few months, watching the wrangling in Parliament over Brexit and the Prime Minister’s toing and fro-ing with Europe and encouraging FDF members in the UK food and drink industry to keep calm and carry on as the previous deadline drew near.
The rest of British manufacturing is anxious about Brexit, for sure, but our food and drink industry is particularly important, keeping us fed and watered, reducing our reliance on imports and accounting for 19% of our manufacturing by turnover and employing over 400,000 people across 7,000 businesses. Ian Wright spoke to Grocery Trader.
First off, Ian, how likely is a no-deal Brexit, and what are the likely consequences for the food and drink industry?
] Thankfully, the European Council has decided to extend our exit date from the EU to 31 October 2019. Food and drink manufacturers are mightily relieved that the immediate threat of a catastrophic no-deal Brexit has been lifted.
Who are the FDF members? Manufacturers, retailers, wholesalers? What size and kinds of companies are they? How do you keep them informed of developments in the Brexit debate?
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is the voice of the UK food and drink industry, the largest manufacturing sector in the country. The UK food and drink industry accounts for 19% of the total manufacturing sector by turnover and employs over 400,000 people in the UK across 7,000 businesses. We are an incredibly diverse sector, speaking on behalf of global brands and thriving small businesses.
At FDF, we have created a ‘Brexit Roadmap’ resource for member companies to keep them up to date with Brexit.
How are you advising your members about how to handle the next few months?
We are doing this through a multitude of channels. Through our ‘Brexit Roadmap’ resource we have guidance and advice, analysis of relevant government publication, webinars and political updates as and when they arise. We hold specific internal committees for members to use as a platform for discussion, of which no deal has become an increasing item on the agenda. We have established key contacts for member companies to contact FDF on the following areas: trade policy and customs, workforce and labour, food safety, food labelling, devolution issues, politics and process, and No Deal planning.
Before the EU Referendum, you polled the members and 71 per cent wanted to remain in the EU. Have you polled them again since? How would they vote now? Would they back a second referendum?
We polled our members in January of this year. When asked about the challenges a ‘No-Deal’ Brexit would present, we found the most popular answer was that it would present their business with serious financial challenges (i.e.) impact on sales, profits, redundancies likely. When asked about preparation for Brexit, the most popular answer was that they [members] said they had done everything they could, but that there were still key pieces of information that government still hadn’t given them so they couldn’t be sure that they had covered everything.
What do the FDF members feel about how the Government has handled Brexit?
Now that we have a longer term extension, the additional time must now be used wisely by Government. There has been a significant increase in the work being done on no-deal planning and we have been very pleased by this.
How do you cover the interests of the different regions?
FDF has sister organisations: there is FDF Scotland and FDF Cymru. We also work incredibly closely with the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association.
How much time have you personally been spending following the Brexit debate? What else have you been up to recently as FDF Chief Executive?
Nearly all my time has been consumed by Brexit. FDF alongside nearly 30 other trade associations wrote to Michael Gove to ask him to pause the relevant Government consultations – during a time like this it cannot be expected to be business as usual conditions.
Besides Brexit what else has the FDF achieved in the last few months?
We had a significant win regarding the Competitions and Markets Authority (CMA) inquiry into the proposed Sainsbury’s/Asda merger. We put the concerns of FDF members to the CMA on the proposed merger, and it seems we have been heard. The merger would have caused a substantial lessening of competition – 60% of the buying power in the market would have been consolidated. Fortunately for our members, the CMA identified a number of issues with the proposed merger.
Your website says “we communicate our industry’s values and concerns to Government, regulators, consumers and the media.” Is the FDF a lobbying group as such? How much influence do you have with the Government and other parties? Do you want to have more influence?
FDF is a trade association. We represent member interests through a multitude of channels, and can vary from through media engagement, to policy and stakeholder engagement with Government officials at regular meetings. We hold various eternal committees for members where they can use this platform to engage with us, and external guests who are likely Whitehall officials.
A good example of this is the EU Exit Trade Association round table. Established not long after the referendum, it brings together the leaders of around 50 UK representative organisations from the food and drink sector. We are regularly joined by others from related industries (for example packaging) and by representatives from Whitehall including (but not limited to) the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade, The Treasury and the Food Standards Agency. It provides a forum in which Government and Industry can meet for Chatham House Rule discussion and information exchange on key issues in the UK’s exit from the European Union. It offers a mechanism by which representative organisations from across the food and drink industry can, as appropriate, co-ordinate media and lobbying activity on Brexit.
The whole food chain has stepped in and stepped-up to assist government planning, and in particular around a nodeal Brexit.
As things are, would you like to swop places with your namesake, Ian Wright the football legend and TV pundit, or are you enjoying the challenge?! I am hugely enjoying the challenge, but I will not rest until we have secured the best deal for the food and drink manufacturing sector post Brexit.