Blog: Dean BestSIAL 2014: New UK food minister pledges action

Dean Best | 22 October 2014

Liz Truss, the UK's recently-appointed Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, went on a whistlestop tour of the country's exhibitors at the SIAL trade show in Paris on Monday, before pledging more help for businesses looking to expand abroad.

However, there are sounds of some discontent among exporters.

Truss, who replaced Owen Paterson after a Cabinet reshuffle in July, shook hands and chatted briefly to a number of UK-based companies promoting their wares at SIAL - from SMEs like dairy firm Dale Farm to the not-so-small Moy Park, part of the Brazilian food giant Marfrig.

It was battle keeping tabs on Truss as her Defra and UKTI handlers wound their way through the crowds at SIAL but just-food managed to get a few brief moments with the Secretary of State in a side room on the stand run by Eblex, the organisation representing beef and lamb farmers in England.

"We know that food and farming is our biggest manufacturing sector - it's worth GBP100bn to the UK economy - and what I see at this show is so much potential," she said. "We've got some great stands this year - apparently we're one of the fastest-growing countries [by exhibitor numbers] - but I think we could do even more."

In December, Truss plans to fly out to China for negotiations with Beijing on issues including opening the market further to pork exports.

Direct talks with governments, Truss argued, was central to the work the coalition can put in to help UK food exporters but she pointed to other low-level ways it could support the sector - at home and abroad.

"We can also use things like the Great campaign to really get that British brand out there - I think the British brand does mean quality [and] high welfare production [but] there's more we can do to get that message across and really promote that brand," she said.

"Also, what I am keen to do is, within our own domestic market, highlight to people how vital our food industry is - one in eight people work in the food industry. It's really important to our own domestic economies. We're opening up public procurement to make it much easier for schools and hospitals to buy British products. We're in discussions with supermarkets about how they can source more British products through their supply chains."

How far government can help on boosting domestic consumption of British food is a point of debate, of course. Public procurement is a proactive mechanism but encouraging under-pressure supermarkets to stock more British produce could be a long haul and is arguably unlikely to work without consumers voting with their wallets.

Broadly, UK exhibitors at SIAL praised the support shown by the current government and government agency UK Trade & Investment. However, there was some concern about the investment in promotional pushes like the Great campaign. One exhibitor said money would be better spent on helping exporters attend more shows. "If it's about pushing British brands, then why not invest more in getting us over there?" the exhibitor said.

And there are noises among UK exporters that UKTI grants, amid pressure on public finances, could be partly rescinded - even grants already pledged.

Truss was unaware of any potential issue about the UKTI grants when the claim was put to her. "I'll definitely speak to the UKTI about that issue," she said. "I'm looking at making sure our exporters have the support they need to enter those markets and continuing doing business with those markets."

A UKTI spokesperson told just-food: "UK Trade & Investment remains committed to supporting companies of all sizes expand their businesses internationally and we continually review our services to ensure they are most effective."

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