Opening the IGD Convention 2010, Sainsbury’s chief executive and IGD president, Justin King, said the food industry was well placed to help its customers meet future challenges but wasn’t being heard.
“I think it’s an industry that simply does not have the voice that it deserves,” he said.
King highlighted the sector’s strengths: farmers manage three quarters of the land in England and Wales, UK retailers represent a half of all retail sales and one in seven of all UK jobs are in the food and drink industry.
Retailers have been among the country’s biggest builders, added King. Food exports are also strong, up 4.3% in the last year and to countries beyond Europe, up 23%, he said.
“We have been creating jobs consistently through the economic downturn. We are pleased to be getting recognition but there is still a long way to go,” he said.
King told delegates it was imperative government heard how important the industry is to the country.
King said the sector had lead on sustainability, for instance, with UK retailers halving what they send to landfill, reducing carbon emissions by 20% and removing 124m HGV miles from Britain’s roads.
The sector has been challenged on food and diet. “We know how difficult it is to make a big difference,” said King, but salt intakes had been reduced by 10% on average and fat by 5%.
The focus now is on reformulating products for better nutrition, new packaging formats and providing more information with an emphasis on Fairtrade, local, seasonal and ethical sourcing.
Moving forward, King said it was vital the sector influenced the outcome of the public health responsibility deal with government.
King highlighted the competitive nature of the UK market but stressed it helped shoppers.
“Through competition we drive greater change that’s better for consumers,” he said.
Skills is one area where companies can co-operate, however.
“There are opportunities for all of us to take our business to the community and schools,” said King.
A career in the food industry should be viewed as a fantastic opportunity not a last resort, he said, but conceded the sector was lacking in specialist skills.
However, the industry is tackling this issue with the launch of the IGD Academy, which brings together the best training the IGD can offer. And it will be free, said King.
Summing up, King said there were challenges ahead such as the increase in VAT in the New Year and consumer expenditure was going to go down.
But by putting consumers first, competing hard for them and working collectively the sector can play a role in building a new future, he said.