The Food and Drink Federation is the organisation that discusses the big issues affecting the whole industry - whether it's Brexit; retailer consolidation; regulation and packaging or the future talent. Their annual dinner is the highlight of the year and I was delighted to get the chance to join them to discuss and hear the latest opportunities and threats to the sector.
“Screen time” is very much a topic of discussion in our house as my kids want to spend time watching TV, playing computer games and looking at their phones. So, sat in black-tie at the Food and Drink Industry Dinner at the Park Lane Hilton, it was something of a surprise to be surrounded by people tapping away on their smart phones and watching the TV as we tucked in to the first course. But this was no ordinary night. Parliament was voting on the Withdrawal Agreement and this would determine the timelines for Brexit. And as Brexit is a subject the UK food industry is, rightly, obsessed with – food exports into mainland Europe are worth over €10 billion - it was deemed appropriate that the vote should be broadcast live.
In truth, the biggest issue of the night was one for Ian Wright, Chief Executive of the FDF. His guest speaker George Parker, political editor of the FT, was going to have to cover the vote and wouldn’t be able to conduct the key-note speech. Wright, a veteran of the food and drink industry, has probably faced many short-notice crises and he wasn’t going to let this one put a damper on the evening.
Wright, in his enigmatic way, announced that he would be conducting a Skype session with Parker, providing us with real-time analysis of the vote from one of Westminster’s most respected commentators. I don’t know about others, but I shuddered at the thought of a Skype session in front of 500 of the great and good of the food industry. Thankfully technological gremlins stayed away, and we were treated to an insightful perspective about how events may unfold.
Handing over to the President of the Food and Drink Federation, Gavin Darby, it was interesting to hear him talk about the need for the food industry to “stick together”. It’s his personal objective to bring back to the organisation some of the large players who, in recent years, have drifted away. This conciliatory tone struck a chord on a night when so much of the discussion had been about Britain’s plans to leave the European Union.
Who knows where we will be by next year’s FDF annual dinner? I don’t know whether we will have left the EU by then or whether Darby will have been successful in bringing back some of the key organisations but one prediction I’m confident to make is that we won’t be tucking in to dinner with the TV on again!