Access to existing Free Trade Agreements, access to labour, the free movement of labour and the need to make the food industry more productive are the key priorities for the UK food and drink industry in the wake of the Brexit vote, according to the Food and Drink Federation’s director general.
In its first ever convention which was held today (5 July), Ian Wright laid out the FDF’s manifesto for the industry in the post-referendum era, setting out its priorities for action.
“The biggest single challenge our industry faces is the UK’s exit from the EU. Indeed, this is probably the UK’s most significant peacetime challenge ever,” he said.
“Last week both the Chancellor and I agreed with the Governor of the Bank of England that the country has taken a decision which adds to the economic risks to economic stability and growth.”
He said it was vital that the industry made its priorities abundantly clear to the government in negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU.
“We must ensure that those entrusted with negotiating our exit from the EU do so armed with the very clearest instructions from the food and drink industry as to what we need.”
The ability to trade, unimpeded by tariffs across the other 27 EU nations is at the heart of the UK’s competitiveness, claimed Wright.
“The EU is the UK’s largest market for exports of food and non-alcoholic drink.  Many manufacturers would struggle to substitute existing EU customers for ones in other parts of the world –  including emerging markets – because of differing consumer tastes and limited product shelf lives.”
Continued access to the favourable trading terms that the EU has secured with other countries is another main priority. “We will insist on continued access to the Free Trade Agreements that the EU has secured with 53 countries without need for renegotiation,” said Wright.
Access to labour is also crucial to the ongoing success of the UK’s food and drink sector. Of 400,000 people employed in the business , nearly a quarter are from EU countries outside the UK, and many of them are from Eastern Europe.
“The immediate priority for those workers is to support them through this deeply unpleasant climate of ‘anti-foreigner’ sentiment and to provide them with speedy reassurance that their future here is absolutely secure and their contribution is valued and warmly welcomed.”
In the medium term, Wright said the industry would require “cast iron assurances” that their access to a flexible workforce, with a wide range of skills and capabilities as well as a strong work ethic, will continue.  
With an ageing population, around 100,000 people are predicted to retire within the next ten years, adding to the strain on the skills shortage. By 2024, the food and drink industry will need an additional 130,000 skilled workers.
“Bringing the right people with the right skills in to our businesses is central – the skills gap facing food and drink is not new, but the need to close it has never been more urgent,” said Dame Fiona Kendrick, CEO of Nestle UK and FDF President.
To help face this challenge, senior leaders in food and drink have launched a major project designed to boost productivity. The FDF and the National Skills Academy for Food and Drink, with Apetito, Butt Foods, Nestle, Mars, Mondelez and Premier Foods have identified a number of steps to ensure the skills gap is met.
While the FDF has already taken action to ensure the UK develops more home-grown talent, particularly food engineers and scientists via graduate and apprenticeship programmes, workers from other EU states will still be needed to fill the skills gap.
“The government must therefore develop a new migration policy that ensures manufacturers will have continued access to the workers we need to address a looming skills gap – and the drive for future innovation to support the UK’s competitive advantage.
“We believe the best way of achieving this is to retain the free movement of labour without disincentives for people coming to the UK to work.”