Gavin Darby Gives Perspective: The Food and Drink Industry’s Response in a Global Crisis

Update 8/11/20: Gavin Darby has been made Chairman of the Felix Project, a London-based food redistribution waste charity. In response to COVID-19, the Felix Project has expanded its operations to account for the negative impacts of the pandemic.

Not long ago, former Food and Drink Federation President Gavin Darby, who also led Premier Foods as CEO, offered his perspective on 5 key opportunities for the new decade. Though we’re only weeks removed from Darby’s vision for the decade in food and drink, given what’s happened since then, it may feel like it’s been many many months.

Among Darby’s insights there were several major themes: UK and EU trade policy, workforce development, sustainability, consumer health, and innovation in the food and drink industry. In the short time since Darby discussed these themes, the world fell into an unprecedented crisis. Yet, as Gavin Darby did when laying the groundwork as CEO for Premier Food’s turnaround, it’s critical that we observe a crisis like this one both up close, and from afar, through the wider lens of what’s to come.

Darby’s perspective before the full extent of the pandemic became clear provides the perfect backdrop from which to do this. As you’ll see in the paragraphs that follow, Darby’s vision for the next decade takes on new and, in some cases, even greater importance in the short and medium-term.


Where We Were and Where it Has Led Us

You only need to look back half a dozen weeks or so to see a completely different conversation within the food and drink industry. The direct and indirect effects of Brexit, particularly as it relates to trade policy, were far and above the main topic of conversation. Unfortunately, today, negotiations understandably seem to have been overwhelmed by the crisis focus on the pandemic.

Post-Brexit trade policy remains a key question for the food and drink industry. As do the other issues Gavin Darby set out for the decade ahead, such as sustainability, innovation, and health. What’s particularly concerning in the near term, though, is the risk of increasingly protectionist trade policies brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, in mid-April, the Food and Drink Federation joined British businesses by signing a joint letter, calling on the government to ensure critical import and export supplies were not disrupted.


Understanding the Importance of Food and Farming

For obvious and not-so-obvious reasons, the food and farming industries are critical to the United Kingdom’s national infrastructure. Clearly, we must have a sustainable, reliable source of food that keeps our population nourished and healthy. But even more than that, Britain’s food and farming industries are key to delivering “jobs and growth in every UK community,” as Gavin Darby noted. This coronavirus pandemic has only served to underscore this key point.

Today, in the context of the current crisis, the importance of our food and farming industries are top of mind, for governments and consumers. Perhaps at no time before have so many people paid such close attention to the critical importance of the food supply chain.

As we move into the next phase of this crisis, though, the British government would be well-served to ensure the integral role that this industry plays is not forgotten and that trade deals, investments, and regulatory frameworks are made to enable these essential industries to flourish. A robust, resilient food supply chain has never been a more critical component of Britain’s infrastructure and must be treated as such.


The Food and Drink Industry’s Incredible Response

Though certainly no one could have foreseen an event like COVID-19, when we look at the food chain’s response to this crisis, there are many positive takeaways. Food and Drink Federation leaders have spent years constructing an efficient, resilient supply chain that delivers safe, affordable, high-quality food to the entirety of Britain’s population.

All that hard work came to the forefront, when, facing an unprecedented spike in demand, the food supply chain held up well and continued to supply the nation. The inevitable shelf shortages were resolved in a short space of time.  This response and recovery was accomplished with initial staffing absence levels reaching an average of 10- 20 percent across UK manufacturers. Without the groundwork laid by FDF and industry leaders, it’s safe to say that Britain’s food supply chain response would’ve been far less effective.


A Reason for Continued Government and Industry Collaboration

Tim Rycroft, COO of the FDF, detailed many nuanced reasons that Britain’s food and drink industry was able to weather the storm of COVID-19. In his letter, he spoke of FDF’s strong relationships with key UK regulatory agencies including the Department for International Trade, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Scottish and Welsh Governments, and the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy. These relationships and others allowed the FDF to ensure its members were heard.

The FDF made sure that food and drink production workers were classified as ‘key workers’ which allowed them to access childcare and bypass challenges from police. Without that key designation, critical food and drink manufacturers would’ve had their already thin workforce diminished even further. Additionally, the temporary suspension of certain legal constraints also allowed the food and drink industry to cooperate in unprecedented ways.

As Gavin Darby noted as he previewed the next decade, similarly complicated issues like sustainability and improving health and well-being require a multidimensional approach. In other words, industry can’t do it alone and meaningful engagement between industry and the UK government is absolutely critical. The food and drink industry’s coordinated response with British government bodies is clear evidence of the incredible results that are possible when regulatory bodies and private industry work together.


Moving Forward in Uncertain Times

The UK, and the food and drink industry, face challenging times ahead. While all indications are that the pandemics peak has passed, we simply don’t know what might be coming next. The good news is, our food and drink industry is standing strong. Everyone across the whole food supply chain in farming, food production , and distribution have stepped up in the face of this unprecedented crisis. And that’s reason for optimism.


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