AHDB marketing – national campaign or national fantasy?
I would like first to acknowledge that meat processors have nowadays a lot to deal with, much Brexit-led, from the day to day (frustrating) dealings with authorities with limited understanding of the realities of the meat trade, to the future provision of labour, the threat of punitive export tariffs to the EU, the new, more complex import and export protocols, a potentially much smaller supply base and the forthcoming increased competition from cheaper meat, produced to lower standards in Third Countries.
We still need to add an important element to this unstable puzzle. According to our savvy politicians, the UK will soon become the “Waitrose of world food” or the “superpower of food exports”. There are “massive opportunities” out there (not in the EU) with inflated numbers to prove it.
This grand vision is at odds with the export reality on the ground. UK food exports bar alcohol are very much of a niche nature and likely to rely on EU markets for many years. Still, successes are numerous from pork to China, beef to Hong Kong and lamb to the EU, backed by good innovation. However, they remain on a smaller scale than our competitors in Europe and elsewhere.
They rely on a small bunch of dedicated exporters, fighting hard on foreign lands. For example, in 2016, the UK was the 26th largest food exporter to China. Our political masters acknowledge it in practice when they ‘wheel’ export of cakes from a Cotswolds bakery to Japan or Sussex Wine to Hong Kong.
We urgently need politicians to understand and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of British food exports and devise the best fitting policies.
The ‘small rivers’, business to business, commercial approach has so far proven very successful and has been a key factor in the development of British meat exports. This has also proven a great value for money. For instance, the National Pork Board in the USA reports a return of 24.7/1 on export marketing and 14.2/1 on domestic marketing according to a study by Cornell University.
However, priorities viewed from Defra and AHDB have changed. This is clearly stated in the “Health and Harmony” consultation paper: “Building on the GREAT campaign, we want to help develop a British brand…” The broad-brush, consumer-led approach now advocated by Defra and AHDB does not fathom the nature and capability of British food exports, nor understand the low level of resources available from levy funding from an English perspective.
In short, its advocates an unrealistic business to consumer (B to C) approach when much cheaper business to business (B to B) has been the norm. Clearly, large state support for the grand vision is needed if we want to make it a reality.
Market access should also be made a true priority. However, having worked within and with the civil service for over twenty-five years, I can safely say that HM Treasury will not loosen its purse to support food marketing. The resources already committed to this wider remit are already diluting the marketing effort needed to support the export of British meat, a fall compounded by the higher overheads and ‘levy redistribution’.
Some decision makers have looked enviously across the Irish sea; the reality is that Bord Bía with its much larger resources and stronger brand still operates on a business-to-business basis.
We urgently need politicians to understand and acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of British food exports and devise the best fitting policies. In the current political climate dominated by grandstanding soundbites, is this going to happen?