Speaking at the Institute for Global Food Security’s (IGFS) annual lecture, Rob Collins stressed that the UK would “not be in a race to the bottom” adding that Post-Brexit, the country would need to maintain its leadership in food and farming.
With less than one year to go before the UK officially leaves the European Union on 29 March 2019, Waitrose continues to remain optimistic despite a recent fall in operating profits and staff bonuses.
The squeeze on profit margins, outlined in last month’s annual figures, was attributed to a Brexit-linked fall in the pound’s value, increasing costs despite the temptation to raise food prices.
Despite “ferocious” competition between rival supermarkets, in which Sainsbury’s also warned of a challenging market for 2018, Collins was “optimistic” about the food retail sector.
“Innovation inspires people,” he said. “People want a deeper experience – Britain has a shared love of great food.
“In 2017 we launched 2,500 new lines and we are building a Waitrose innovation centre this summer. Every time we innovate, it translates into increased demand and increased spending.”
Collins highlighted some innovation that included Omega 3 enriched chicken, supplied by Devenish Nutrition in partnership with Moy Park Chicken.
He also spoke of the need to “maintain a strong, ethical compass in such a ferociously competitive landscape,” pointing to Waitrose’s commitment to ethical standards that may not always make financial sense in the short-term but was also the USP of the retailer, which occupies 5% of the UK grocery market.
Chairman of Devenish Nutrition, Owen Brennan, added his thoughts about Brexit. In a Q&A session, which also featured Janet McCollum, chief executive of Moy Park Chicken, Brennan argued that despite all the “gloominess” about food security and Brexit, there were “lots of reasons to be optimistic”.
“The generation coming through now – they are much more informed about food, they are much more aware,” he said.
“They will not allow standards to slip. We have to have confidence in them – you have to move forward while looking forward.”
McCollum added that change was an integral part of the agri-food sector and Brexit merely intensified that.
“You can never stand still in this business,” she said. “From our humble beginnings in Moygashel to having 12,000 employees across Europe, the biggest lesson we have learned is that consumer wellbeing is core.”
The IGFS Annual Lecture, which took place at Queen’s University, Belfast, was strongly represented by the agri-food industry.
Companies in attendance included Dunbia, Dawn Meats, Finnebrogue, Mash Direct, Irwin’s Bakery and Dale Farm alongside public-sector bodies such as AFBI, safefood, Belfast City Council and Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA).