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Food for thought on recent industrial initiatives

11 December 2017

With a variety of new initiatives being announced by the UK Government, it looks like 2018 could be an interesting year for the food and beverage industry. Suzanne Gill reports. 

There has been a great deal of media attention following the recent publication by the Government of its Industrial Strategy, and what it might mean to UK industry. Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation believes that its introduction is key to supporting efforts to improve productivity and invest in innovative technologies which are set to radically change the ways in which people live and work.
Scouler said: “The Industrial Strategy acts as a good foundation for a new partnership with industry where Government and business can ensure consistency in policy thinking and implementation to ensure the UK is world leader in these new technologies. By introducing independent scrutiny of the progress of these plans, the Government is signalling that there will be a strong focus on measuring delivery which boardrooms will recognise and welcome.”

The Whitepaper talks about growing the Artificial Intelligence (AI) & Data-Driven Economy. It says that these technologies are already starting to transform business models across many sectors with vast datasets already having been deployed to identify better ways of doing complex tasks. 

A recent study found that digital technologies, including AI ,created a net total of 80,000 new jobs annually across a population similar to the UK. One estimate has reported that AI could add £232 billion to the UK economy by 2030. 

The Whitepaper also stated an intention to put the UK at the forefront of the global move to high-efficiency agriculture. It says that rising global demand for food and water is increasing the need for agriculture that is able to produce more from less. The Government’s ‘Transforming food production: from farm to fork’ programme aims to put the UK at the forefront of advanced sustainable agriculture. Over the coming years, as Government replaces the Common Agricultural Policy, incentives for investment in sustainable agriculture will increase, helping to grow the markets for innovative technologies and techniques. 

A sector deal for the food industry?
As part of the Industrial Strategy, the Department for Business has also recently announced four new Sector Deals which focus on sector-specific issues with the aim of creating opportunities for business to boost productivity, employment, innovation and skills. The first sectors to be awarded deals are construction, artificial intelligence, automotive and life sciences. However, a Sector Deal for food manufacturing is expected to be announced in 2018.

A new Food and Drink Council is also being created to work with the Government to promote growth, increase exports and identify challenges and opportunities that will impact the food industry after the UK leaves the EU. 

The Government's recent ‘Made Smarter Industrial Digitalisation Review’ report, which was published at the end of October, estimated that the food and drink industry could add an additional £55 billion to the economy over the next decade, purely through improved digitalisation.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has welcomed these moves, which, it says, recognises the importance of the many sub-sectors that make up the nation's food chain and which employs almost four million people.

While exports of food and drink have grown to record figures over the past year, just one-in-five food and drink manufacturers currently sell to foreign markets, presenting a considerable untapped opportunity for the industry.

Commenting on the launch of the Food and Drink Council, Ian Wright CBE, director general of the FDF, said: “We have been calling for a Food and Drink Sector Council for some time and this is recognition from Government of the central importance of the food and drink supply chain to the economy. Its creation acknowledges the importance of the sector to both national security and economic growth, and will allow us to unlock our very significant productivity potential and secure our position as a global leader in safe, sustainable, and high-quality food and drink.

"We will continue to work closely with both Defra and BEIS to ensure we secure a transformative sector deal for food and drink manufacturing.”

Commenting on the relevance of the recent announcements to the food sector, Michael Gove, secretary of state for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “The Industrial Strategy contains important plans to boost our agriculture and food industries' productivity, while enhancing our natural environment.

“The establishment of a Food and Drink Sector Council will create a new and ambitious partnership between Government and industry. The Council will build on existing proposals for a sector deal, securing the UK's position as a global leader in sustainable, affordable and high-quality food and drink.

“Added to that, the Industrial Strategy's clean growth Grand Challenge – specifically the 'Transforming food production: from farm to fork' programme - will drive innovation in food production whilst reducing emissions, pollution, waste and soil erosion. All of this will put the UK at the forefront of advanced sustainable agriculture.”

Also commenting on the skills issues raised by Industrial Strategy whitepaper, Mike Rigby, head of manufacturing at Barclays Corporate Banking, said:  “Targeted investment through sector-specific deals, supported by a focus on technical education and ‘reskilling’, will be welcome news for manufacturers. But Government and business will need to work together if the UK is to tackle productivity in the long-term.
“With one in five businesses blaming a lack of skilled workers for the delay in implementing these technologies, the funds committed to boosting STEM skills and the National Retraining Scheme are crucial. Combined, they will help equip people for the workplace of the future, helping to ensure the UK manufacturing sector remains a strong post-Brexit competitor internationally.”

After analysing the content of the report, Laurie Miles, director of analytics at SAS UK & Ireland also focused on the importance of upskilling the workforce. He said: “Finally, the Government has woken up and recognised that getting ahead in the digital economy is vital to Britain’s productivity puzzle.  Addressing the UK’s digital skills gap remains a major obstacle to overhauling the productivity slump. To create a sustainable economy requires greater use of data and technology to reinvigorate and grow many sectors. 
“While it is pleasing to see steps being taken to invest in the fourth industrial revolution, much more needs to be done to encourage the take-up and development of skills that will be needed to see it through. Only then, will we create an innovative culture effective for driving the UK forward in this global and competitive market.”

Key Whitepaper policies that relate to skills includes a commitment to improve the existing technical education system. There will be £406 million to invest in maths, digital and technical education to help address the shortage of STEM skills. A new National Retraining Scheme will also be created to support people to re-skill. This will start with a £64 million investment for digital and construction training and it must be hoped that further funds will be made available to back the expected Sector Deal for the food industry too.

Food Processing will be watching developments closely and reporting back on anything that could have a positive impact for the food and beverage processing industry.

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