It’s time for UK Food and Drink manufacturing to be recognised for what it is: A great British success story

2nd July 2024

As the election campaigns rumble on, businesses in every sector are eagerly scouring election manifestos and interviews with the main Parties’ top teams as they desperately try to predict what their respective policy landscapes will look like after the 4th July.

While recent history has underscored that political predictions are a mug’s game, the current polling makes it unsurprising that the focus is largely on what to expect under a Labour government.

We work extensively with clients in the food and drink sector – including four of the UK’s top 10 largest food and drink companies – and one announcement that stood out to me this week was Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves using an interview in the Sun to outline Labour’s “5 Point Plan for Pubs”.

Some of this was simply a new wrapper for measures already detailed in the Party’s manifesto, such as plans to reform the business rates system, but there were also hints at measures specifically focused on beer and pubs, namely the suggestion that there could be further action on alcohol duty.

What strikes me is how this compares to the wider food and drink sector. The FDF calculates that food and drink is responsible for 19% of the UK’s manufacturing turnover – more than the automotive and aerospace sectors combined. It supports more than 4.5 million jobs across over 12,000 manufacturers, spread throughout the length and breadth of the UK. It is a great British success story.

Yet, the reality is that it’s not seen to have the political pizzazz of other sectors and you’d be hard-pressed to find manifesto commitments from any party aimed directly at supporting food and drink manufacturing.

That’s not to say that beer and pubs aren’t deserving of the attention they can receive. Quite the opposite. As we know from our work with Molson Coors, this is a sector that continues to face an incredibly challenging recovery from the impacts of the pandemic, as well as from decades of fiscal policies that have seen it subject to the highest tax burden in the UK. The British Beer and Pub Association rightly points out that pubs and breweries continue to close at an alarming rate and argue that more support is required.

But it is also true that there is clear political capital in being seen to back Britain’s boozers (even if the end results don’t go far enough), which doesn’t currently extend to the wider sector.

Publicans, shop workers and farmers are broadly understood as the “good guys”, while those who actually make what we eat and drink are too often positioned as businesses that need to be restricted and constrained.

It is of course not just appropriate, but essential, that food and drink businesses are subject to rigorous scrutiny, and the sector must go further, faster to address the impact of how its products are made and consumed.

But too often the progress that many food and drink companies have made, whether that’s in becoming more sustainable, changing how they market or produce their products, leading the way as inclusive and diverse employers or being at the heart of local economies, is not fully understood or appreciated.

Labour has been clear that it views a comprehensive industrial strategy as an essential part in driving growth in the economy, but their strategy contains barely a mention of food and drink manufacturing. Instead, it is widely expected that a Labour government will be more restrictive towards the sector. While much of this new regulation may ultimately be proportionate and appropriate, the risk is that this is not balanced by a regulatory environment that also recognises what the sector brings to the UK – from job creation to enhancing our nation’s food security – and provides a framework for the sector to thrive.

The truth is that, regardless of who enters Downing Street on 5th July, the overarching challenge for the food and drink sector remains the same: to deepen awareness and understanding of just how vital this sector is to our national interests, not just among those who ultimately determine policy, but for everyone who consumes their products.

By Rory Fletcher, Senior Director

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