Consumers are increasingly concerned about where their food comes from, and while public debate may offer conflicting views, it seems the Government is listening. Peter Martin, MCA contributing editor, discusses the launch of its national food strategy and why hospitality needs to get involved.

 

The British really do care about their food – and it’s not just a middle-class thing.

As Henry Dimbleby, the man charged by environment secretary Michael Gove to create a new food strategy for the country (or at least England) told last month’s UK Hospitality conference, even those relying on food banks have a view about what they eat and where it comes from.

The school food campaigner, co-founder of the Sustainable Restaurant Association – and most pertinently co-founder of the Leon healthy fast food chain and the London Union street food and late-night market businesses – has already been out touring the country, harvesting views from all types of people not normally represented in the political conversation.

There’s plenty of research as well, to show that the nation is becoming more engaged when it comes to healthy eating, the provenance of its food and drink and environmental matters in general.

Two-thirds of people say they try to lead a healthy and environmentally friendly lifestyle, while about half of adults even describe themselves as ‘foodies’. Increasing numbers say they are influenced by nutritional information on menus, with sourcing and sustainability also climbing up the public’s list of priorities.

And the restaurant and pub sector is moving in the same direction too. Of the top 10 food trends sector bosses identified as being key this year, eight were linked to health and sustainability.

Public opinion may at times seem confused or even contradictory in its understanding and attitudes to what goes into the food chain. Why are people apparently happy to have chlorine in their water supply to ensure tap water is freer of bacteria than bottled mineral water, but throw their arms in the air at the thought of chlorine-washed chicken from the USA, even if they did consume buckets of fried chicken last time they were at Disney World in Orlando?

Or why don’t they mind swallowing all sorts of E-numbers, while supporting the continued ban on GM crops?

Yes, before you all start shouting, it is a complex issue – and that’s the point. There needs to be more debate and more informed conversations – and that needs to include the hospitality sector.

With the Dimbleby strategy review underway, now is the perfect time to do just that. As he himself says – and understands as a restaurant man – for too long the supermarket chains have dominated the discourse and overly influenced policy at the consumer-facing end of the food journey. Now is an opportunity to rebalance that and put diners up there with shoppers. As Dimbleby also said at the UK Hospitality conference, he wants to hear from the industry.

But his review does have to be put into context. “No part of our economy matters more than food,” says Dimbleby, and not only because it accounts for one in eight jobs, but also because it affects the wellbeing of the entire population.

That also means that the rise in diet-related illness and the effects of climate change will be central concerns. It also promises to be a wide and open consultation, with Dimbleby talking about citizens’ assemblies to address the issues.

Food security will also be high up the agenda, as will sustainability and the environmental problems caused by the kind of intensive farming that has increased production since WWII, but has impacted soil health, air quality, river freshness, biodiversity and climate change.

The full terms of reference, and how to get involved, can be found on the new National Food Strategy website: www.nationalfoodstrategy.org. The Government does appear to be taking this seriously, and makes the point it is the first major review of the UK food system in nearly 75 years.

However, those free-marketers hoping that a post-Brexit Britain will be open to US corn-fed, hormone-injected beef are likely to be disappointed. Bringing down food standards is not on Michael Gove’s agenda – the fact he chose Henry Dimbleby to draw up the strategy blueprint underlines that.

Whether Gove stays at Defra or remains in a position of influence in a Johnson or Hunt cabinet might change that, but then everything might be off the table again.

As it stands, the results of the review are due to be published next summer, with the Government promising to produce a white paper six months after that.

The UK Hospitality team, which has become a hugely more important lobbying body for the sector a year after the BHA and ALMR merger, already has regular weekly meetings at Defra – but individuals can’t leave it solely to them.

There may be those who think with the current political turbulence it all may be in vain, but if you don’t contribute now there may not be another chance.

And there’s more

It’s easy to be bored with politics with the ongoing wrangling over both Brexit and the Tory leadership, but other stuff is going on, and not just around the food strategy.

This last month saw the launch by the Government of the first tourism sector deal, which is designed to prepare Britain for an extra nine million visitors a year, coupled to a commitment to build 130,000 new hotel rooms by 2025.

It’s good news, but just as interesting, and potentially important for the restaurant market, was the decision of the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to order Amazon and food delivery specialist Deliveroo to put an investment deal between the two on hold while it decides whether to investigate further. The CMA issued an initial enforcement order over fears that the two companies have “ceased to be distinct” following a $575m funding round into Deliveroo in May, led by Amazon.

It follows a separate investigation on the other side of the Atlantic by New York City authorities into the business relationships between restaurant and another major delivery company GrubHub. Both show that regulators are starting to take notice.

Up with the lark

As an aside, anyone who wakes early with the dawn chorus should perhaps tune into Radio 4’s Farming Today to get the lowdown on the latest food production developments. It’s certainly more informative than the national media.