Shaping the future of food and drink

Speech by Business Secretary Greg Clark at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Convention 2018.

The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP

It’s fantastic to be with you today here at the British Museum.

If you asked someone on the street, ‘what’s the best-known item in this building?’, some might mention the mummies, some might name the Elgin Marbles…

But I think some would say the Rosetta Stone.

Found by one of Napoleon’s Lieutenants during his Egypt campaign of 1799, it was undoubtedly a great discovery.

Yet – just a few years earlier – in 1795 Napoleon was at the centre of what I think was an even greater discovery.

That year, Napoleon offered a prize of 12,000 francs to anyone who could solve an age-old problem and give his army an edge over his enemies.

Not a new weapon to outfight them.

Or new tactics to outsmart them.

But the ability to outlast them by keeping his army’s food fresher for longer.

In just over a decade a French confectioner named Nicolas Appert had found the answer.

Through his method of heating, boiling and sealing food in airtight glass jars.

The same basic elements which keep canned goods fresh today.

Yet in the years that followed, this new technology was developed, patented and commercialised, not in France, but here in the UK. Thanks to our entrepreneurial culture of being willing to take a risk on new ideas.

So I’d like to use my speech today to set out how – while it isn’t always recognised - food and drink is making great strides on technology.

And through our Industrial Strategy I believe we can do even more.

The reputation of British food and drink

So – when people think of British food and drink, what do they think of?

Well – they think of high standards, premium brands and a deserved reputation for quality.

They might think of the sector’s impact on the people it employs and our economy as a whole.

Indeed, the food and drink industry is the biggest manufacturing sector in the country, larger than automotive and aerospace combined.

While the food and drink supply chain employs nearly 4 million people.

From Scottish salmon farmers on the Isles of Mull and Harris in Scotland…

To workers in a McVities’ factory in Stockport, which makes 2 billion Jaffa Cakes a year.

And food and drink is arguably the most geographically dispersed industry there is.

Ian Wright has a great fact - that there’s a food or drink manufacturing plant with more than 50 employees in every single UK constituency but Westminster.

And I’ve seen first-hand the importance of those local food and drink jobs which exist across the UK.

With my father and grandfather’s dairy delivery round supplying our neighbours in Middlesbrough with fresh Yorkshire milk 7 days a week.

So people might think about the quality brands you represent, the people you employ and your geographical breadth across the UK.

But when it comes to how food and drink is produced, processed and sold in this country, if people consider this at all, they’d probably think of traditional methods which have been around for years.

We need to change this outdated perception.

Inspiring the next generation of food and drink talent to choose a career in this fascinating industry.

A technology intensive sector

Indeed, in this - London Tech week - I believe food and drink is on the verge of a revolution to make this one of the most tech intensive sectors there is.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

When I visit food and drink sites across the UK I’m always struck by the level of scientific precision from the formulation of feed, to the moisture of the soil.

And if you open the pages of The Grocer or Food Manufacture you see the true face of a sector pushing the boundaries of science and technology like never before.

In the video a moment ago, Innovate UK’s Kathryn Miller was talking about how food and drink innovation can help create nutritionally beneficial products.

And this is already happening.

Nestlé researchers in York have played an instrumental role in helping the company transform the structure of sugar through a new process only using natural ingredients.

Their new product, Milkybar Wowsomes, has 30% less sugar than similar products with the largest-sized bars still under 100 calories.

And other new technologies like AI and robotics are already transforming this sector.

Take Ocado – who joined the FTSE100 just last month.

They’re now making more than a quarter of a million deliveries every week.

That’s about 1 delivery every 2 seconds.

To keep up with demand they’re developing a new robot which can recognise and pick up every 1 of the 50,000 items on their website.

Using Artificial Intelligence, the robot works out the best way to grab each item with its suction arm and uses sensors to make sure it doesn’t crush them.

They’re not the only ones harnessing the potential of Artificial Intelligence.

For example, a potato processing company is already using AI to work out which spuds would work best for chips and which for crisps.

Cutting waste and saving money.

The impact of the Industrial Strategy

So when it comes to new technologies you’re already doing more than people imagine and looking forward I believe you’ll continue to confound people’s expectations.

Our Industrial Strategy will play a crucial role in helping you do just that.

For example, one of the Grand Challenges in our Industrial Strategy will focus on Artificial Intelligence and the data-driven economy.

And – we’re already supporting your sector in adopting new technologies.

Back in February, I announced £90 million of Industrial Strategy money - bringing together AI, robotics and earth observation - to improve supply chain resilience in the agri-food sector.

This includes support for ‘innovation accelerators’ charged with exploring the commercial potential of new tech ideas at pace.

I see food and drink as being one of most important sectors of the future.

For this reason, I have asked the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser for advice on the potential opportunities that exist to significantly raise productivity across the whole UK food production system.

From agricultural science, to food technology and beyond.

But – of course – this isn’t just about the government.

Recently we’ve seen this sector taking charge of its own future through the Food and Drink Sector Council.

And the council is the beginning of something important.

One of its early tasks is to propose a Sector Deal to drive forward each aspect of our Industrial Strategy as it reflects food and drink.

I take this personally.

Michael Gove and I will jointly lead for the government on negotiating this.

And I’d like to thank Ian Wright and Tim Rycroft for the crucial co-ordinating role the FDF has played.

I want this to be a totemic deal that establishes the food and drink sector as an essential part of this country’s economic future.

A deal which drives new technologies and grows food and drink exports into new markets.

And I know my colleague John Mahon from the Department for International Trade will be talking later about what the government is doing to help your firms expand into new markets.

Listening to the sector

And when it comes to exports, let’s not forget that 7 of your top 10 export destinations are in Europe.

I know you’ve been talking about Brexit this morning and heard from Michael Creed from the Irish government, so let me offer a few thoughts.

Last month, I travelled to Belfast to hear from companies, including food and drink firms, whose supply chains span the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

One of those companies was Diageo who make Bailey’s Irish Cream.

Bailey’s manufacturing process works on an all-Ireland basis.

With ingredients and packaging materials crossing the border multiple times.

Milk travels from Northern Ireland to Ireland for processing into cream, some of which is sent back to Northern Ireland.

Whiskey goes from south to north, and back again, while bottles go from north to south.

With such highly integrated supply chains it’s no surprise that companies like Diageo are concerned about the delays and costs that could be created by new customs processes.

And as we negotiate our new relationship with the EU, securing continued frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland, while avoiding hard border infrastructure, will be paramount.

I know that many of you are also concerned about the potential challenges of ‘Rules of Origin’ rules which determine a product’s economic nationality.

This issue was raised in a recent, insightful report commissioned by the FDF and the National Association of British and Irish Flour Millers which I read with great interest.

One case study in the report features a loaf of wholemeal bread sold under a household brand in the UK and exported to Ireland, an EU member state.

The wholemeal and white flour it contains is milled in the UK from a blend of grains from growers in Canada, the US and the UK reflecting both global price and harvest quality.

Yet in one post-Brexit scenario examined by the report, the use of UK-milled flour from a blend of grains, including any quantity of wheat grown outside the UK, would automatically disqualify the loaf of bread from preferential import tariff treatment into the EU single market.

We need to take concerns like this into account, avoiding any unnecessary barriers to trade, including from ‘Rules of Origin’.


So ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to innovation, food and drink is starting from a position of strength.

And through our Industrial Strategy we have an unparalleled opportunity to build on this – and make the UK a world-leader in food and drink technologies.

So, just as innovative methods of preserving food were commercialised here in the UK 200 years ago, let’s make sure we build the technologies which will define your sector for the next 200 years right here in the UK.

Thank you for inviting me here today.

Published 14 June 2018