Luminaries from across the UK food industry spectrum made their annual pilgrimage to the City Food Lecture in London recently. Watch the video of PepsiCo president Richard Evans delivering the lecture and read the lecture in full. What follows is Produce Business UK’s highlights package
The major thrust of Evans lecture was that the people of the UK have a collective responsibility for improving the health of the nation, and that the food industry must collaborate to help them along the way.
Evans told an audience of around 600 that it’s high time Britain’s media and politicians stop taking pot shots at the large food companies and start engaging with them on a meaningful level to help the public make healthier food and drink choices and lead healthier lifestyles.
“This is the equal responsibility of all sectors of society – the blame cannot all be pinned on a few companies in the food sector,” he said. “This industry is often [portrayed as] the pantomime villain in a Christmas pantomime. But what if we spent more time collaborating and finding solutions?”
Evans added that there should be greater focus on the contribution that the food industry – the UK’s largest manufacturing sector – has made to society in the last century, he said, urging people and industry to consider health in a far broader perspective, instead of looking at it through the “narrow prism of weight and obesity”.
“We need to collaborate to address and change misconceptions and to get people to understand the seriousness with which the food industry takes its responsibilities,” Evans said. “This is a big task and not one that the food industry should tackle on its own, but the vast majority of us willingly embrace that responsibility and we have the ability to bring change and make a real difference.
“The food industry plays a very positive role in our culture. Acting collaboratively and collectively, we can do more, but we should also be rightly proud of the progress we have made and the responsibility we have shown in creating today’s food industry.
“We put a smile on the face of Britain every day.”
From PepsiCo’s own perspective, Evans said the saturated fat content of a bag of Walkers crisps has reduced by 85% since 2003 and that due to a policy that sees the firm only promoting its zero sugar range of soft drinks, 70% of the sales of Pepsi in the UK now contain no sugar.
“We are only one actor on this stage,” he said. “There are many others who are doing similar things. But we can’t simply rely on the same big companies to keep stepping up to the plate, while others ignore their responsibility. That’s not a level playing field.
“If the Department of Health was more open to industry collaboration, we could embrace initiatives such as Change4Life for instance in a more effective way. And perhaps if we were less dogmatic on both sides, we could really help consumers to make the right choices for their health. But if we continue to mount campaigns where one person is throwing accusations at another, fingering an industry or fingering a single ingredient, then we’ll never make progress.
A panel, chaired by lawyer, businesswoman and TV personality Margaret Mountford, then debated the lecture afterwards, and comprised Dr Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care, Steve Rowe, executive director, food, at Marks & Spencer (M&S), and sustainable restaurateur Arthur Potts Dawson.
Rowe, an M&S man through and through, emphasised the importance of innovation and value and said the industry could do more in terms of communication: “We [M&S] see innovation as a competitive advantage, not a competitive burden…we shouldn’t stifle innovation, we should encourage it.
“We have to do more in terms of the presentation of healthy food. At M&S, we believe value is about more than price; a deflationary market is in consumers’ interests in the short term, but a race to the bottom is not good for anyone.
“Having a food industry that ignores genuine consumer desire to eat more healthily is madness; consumers and their choices are what manage it [the food industry]. We can help this through good communication and by giving people a real choice.”
Dr Jebb, renowned as one of the country’s leading nutritional voices, backed the industry in its resistance to greater regulation of its activities, but called for a more uniform approach in the ranks.
“I don’t see the government telling industry how big a biscuit should be, but voluntarily we have seen companies looking at the sizing of their products. But it is particularly unfair to leave the most willing companies the most exposed. That cuts at the heart of competitiveness and it may come to a point where you have to sweep up the laggards with mandatory action.
“The devil is in the detail though – when someone says to me they want to see more regulation, I ask them to write it.”
She added: “We all need to do more to improve basic food literacy and understanding in families. I believe as a nation we have lost the value of basic ingredients and staple foods [to our diets]…we need to help people re-engage with food at a very fundamental level.”
At one point, visibly upset by a long ‘question’ asked by PR veteran Jonathan Choat from the floor, which in a nutshell encouraged the food industry to abandon ‘fatties’ who don’t look after themselves, she said: “I don’t think people choose to be overweight. The world we live in today makes getting fatter the default. Most people will eat more than they need, but we as a society shouldn’t just think that this is not a problem – this is something that affects us all.”
Arthur Potts Dawson
Self-styled peoples’ champion Potts Dawson, previously impressive on his appearance on TED appeared a little out of his depth from the start and sadly contributed little to the debate of any real consequence. He told the bigger food companies that they “have to be prepared to take the flak” from the public and media and said confused consumers like him are “battling with ourselves and need the support of the larger companies”.
He added a number of random unsubstantiated comments such as “right now our food industry is upside down and too fond of money, it’s not working” and the arguably deeper “there is a social disconnect between consumers and where there food comes from. [The manufacturing] industry is just a conduit for the relationships between the farmer and the consumer.”
In her inimitable style, HRH the Princess Royal provided a thought-provoking response on behalf of the audience, which in its own way said as much as any of the panelists.
Princess Anne said: “It is not popular, or perhaps even politically correct these days, to use the word ‘responsibility’ but we ignore at our peril our individual responsibility for improving the health of the nation. It is a shared endeavour; we need everybody to buy into the fact that there is a healthier way of eating.
“Good food is an educational necessity. You are not born with that knowledge and unless it is made available to you, you will not learn that information.”
The British public is often reminded to drink and drive responsibly, said the Princess Royal, adding: “Should we in fact add ‘eat responsibly’ to that equation? What a difference [eating healthily] can make – it is as important as drinking or driving responsibly.”
• The City Food Lecture is an annual, invitation-only fixture in the City of London and food industry calendars. Held each year at the magnificent Guildhall, the event is organised by the seven city livery companies whose roots are in the food industry – namely the Worshipful Companies of Bakers, Butchers, Cooks, Farmers, Fishmongers, Fruiterers and Poulters.