Owen Paterson, secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA), pledged to tackle imports in his keynote address at the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF’s) President’s Dinner last night (May 21).
“22% of the food we import could be produced here,” he told guests at the dinner to celebrate the FDF’s centenary. “The industry can grow stronger by sticking more food on supermarket shelves that is actually grown here.”
Paterson warned that the UK had a £1.2bn trade deficit in dairy products. “We imported 95,000t of Cheddar cheese last year – a more competitive industry could fill that gap.”
Import substitution group
To narrow the gap, Paterson pledged to convene an import substitution group that would consult the industry’s views on how best to curb food imports.
He also highlighted the contributions of food and drink exports to the UK economy. “Exports are crucial for the industry if it is to continue to grow,” said Paterson.
“China has already opened its doors to British pork but we’re not stopping there. Our food exports to Saudi Arabia increased by 35% in 2012, and we sold half a billion pounds worth of chocolate overseas.”
The DEFRA boss went on to praise the food and drink industry’s contribution to the economy. “The food and drink sector is a vitally important part of our economy, contributing £96bn and nearly 4M jobs. I want to do everything I can to support it, and get more investment into the UK,” said Paterson.
Meanwhile, both Prime Minister David Cameron and opposition leader David Miliband sent video messages of support to the FDF on its centenary celebration.
Cameron said the food and drink industry was “powering ahead” and that the government was doing everything possible to help.
He also praised the industry’s achievements in boosting exports and introducing skills training. “I’d like to thank you [the food and drink industry] for exports and leading on the skills agenda,” he said.
Paterson added at the event: “The food industry also offers a fantastic range of careers and there’s important work to be done to get even more skilled people involved. It would be good to see this dynamic industry beginning to sell itself better and we will look at what we can do to help with that.”
In his video message, Miliand pledged to do what he could to help the sector achieve its full potential while he was in opposition and, if Labour were elected to government, as Prime Minister.