Is the food industry heading for the perfect storm?

Following the IGD conference yesterday the story hitting the headlines was Sir Terry Leahy’s attack on the standards in Britain’s schools, a theme also covered, albeit less vociferously by Andy Clarke at Asda when he talked about the lack of opportunity for school leavers. The words of the Tesco boss hit the front page of the Evening Standard and have been widely covered in the news this morning.

But for me, sitting in the audience surrounded by many representatives from manufacturers and suppliers, the headline story was quite different – albeit equally sobering. If we fast forward twenty years we could be in what Peter Kendall from the NFU termed ‘the perfect storm’ – a need to increase global food production in order to feed the growing population whilst at the same time facing insufficient energy resources and water scarcity. The Prince of Wales, appearing on video, reminded us of his prediction in March of this year that we have just 100 months to address climate change – that is now only 93.

The buzz words of the day were “value for values” with Joanne Denney-Finch highlighting the consumer’s desire for great quality at low prices but with shopper research showing their number one concern to be ‘poverty and malnutrition’ retailers and suppliers ignore issues like sustainability, ethical supply chain, community and health at their peril.

Needless to say the retailers battled to take the high ground by demonstrating how they are listening to consumers and giving them what they want. Sir Terry talked about following the customer but warned us not to lose sight of long term trends, Sainsbury’s referred to ‘savvy shoppers’ who know how to find value by tapping into different ranges depending on their needs whilst Morrisons highlighted its focus on food through its vision to be ‘food specialists for everyone’.

Peter Marks at the Co-op did not miss the opportunity to demonstrate how they have been giving consumers great value with ethical trading at its core since 1844 – the ‘democratic consumerism’ that Andy Bond referred to recently is not a new idea it would seem!

With the overall theme of Leadership Through Adversity, a powerful speech by Lord Sebastian Coe summed up the mood of the day – having a vision for the future is more important in difficult times and asking ‘Why?’ before we ask ‘How?’ becomes ever more critical. The food industry is one that is trusted by the nation and gives business heads of major manufacturers and retailers the opportunity to use their leadership for good, helping guide consumers to make the right choices. “Doing good is also good business” said Cadbury boss Todd Stitzer.

Let’s hope that values continue to be pushed to the forefront so that we can avoid the perfect storm ahead.

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