FDF Scotland’s CEO on preparing for Brexit and food innovation opportunities

David Thomson from the Food and Drink Federation examines the challenges facing the industry in today’s volatile environment.

17 October 2018
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Since joining FDF Scotland in 2015 as CEO, David Thomson has been raising the profile of FDF, increasing membership and providing a voice for industry. He also has the role of ‘innovation champion’ within the Scotland Food and Drink partnership.

We caught up with him to find out more about this role as well as his thoughts on the current challenges and opportunities facing the food and drink industry.

What does an innovation champion do?

The main aim of the role is to help grow the food and drink industry in Scotland sustainably and profitably to help achieve the £30bn turnover target by 2030 set in the Scotland Food and Drink strategy. This equates to about 5% growth each year and innovation is key to this growth, whether it’s in new product development or resource efficiency.

The ‘Make Innovation Happen’ programme is just one of the services provided to Scottish Food and Drink businesses. It’s a one-stop shop for businesses wanting information and support to help them innovate.

There are also a number of events looking at future trends to help stimulate interest among businesses in innovation. For example, one recently focussed on opportunities for product innovation targeted to different population groups.

What are the key opportunities for food innovation?

Improving the nation’s health is a key opportunity for innovation. There is a variety of emerging health food trends that companies can explore. These include smaller portion sizes, reduced sugar, higher protein and more vegetables in dishes.

However, any innovation needs to be considered along with the drive to develop or reformulate products in line with public health goals for healthier products. This may be quite challenging for some products, for example where reduction in sugar changes the fundamental properties of the product, including texture, structure and colour.

Another key opportunity is innovation to reduce the environmental impact of plastics. In the coming years, there is a huge amount of innovation work needed to make all plastic reusable, recyclable or compostable, whilst not compromising the shelf-life or safety of the food and drink products.

What are the current challenges for food and drink businesses?

The main challenge currently is of course Brexit. The FDF are working hard to ensure food and drink is prioritised in any trade deals as well as helping members understand what the rules are and how best to prepare for Brexit.

The next big challenge for the food and drink industry will be to continue to grow and thrive in what is a very volatile environment. There is greater competition among business and continued pressure to reduce prices at a time when costs are increasing. For example, the increasing cost of importing ingredients from abroad and managing the large fluctuations in ingredient costs will be a big challenge. The merger of supermarkets (such as the recent Sainsbury’s-Asda merger) is also a concern for businesses that currently have deals with either of these supermarkets.

In Scotland, it is likely that there will be a different approach to the rest of the UK in terms of legislation on food and drink promotions. The consultation on this is currently open until January 9, 2019. There may also be a different approach to legislation on a deposit return scheme to increase recycling and reduce littering of bottles and cans.

Businesses operating or selling products in both Scotland and the rest of the UK will face the challenge of complying with different rules.

What are the future ambitions of FDF Scotland?

We are working on promoting careers within the food and drink industry to help meet the skills need of the sector. This work, on behalf of Scottish Government and the Scotland Food and Drink partnership, will help fill the skills gap with the 19,000 new recruits the sector needs by 2024.

Over 300 Food and Drink Skills Ambassadors have been trained to help at careers events and run classroom workshops in schools and colleges. We are also working within the education system to ensure schools are partnered with local food and drink businesses. 

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