I recently held a debate in Parliament on the importance of the food and drink sector to the UK. Here in Carlisle, of course, we are fortunate to have a very significant food and drink sector with Nestle, Two Sisters, McVitie’s – and plenty of others – who between them employ more than 2,500 people directly and even more indirectly.
To the surprise of many, food and drink is the nation’s largest manufacturing sector. It employs more than 440,000 people in the UK and makes a significant contribution to the national and local economies. It is also an important exporter and of course helps the Treasury through the tax it pays.
It is a sector that also offers real career opportunities and training for the next generation and it is an innovator, bringing many new products to the market. As Chair of the All-Party Group for Food and Drink I have visited a number of research and development departments at factories and it really is a remarkable scientific process – with the fun of trying new flavour combinations and recipes. Think a science experiment crossed with Willy Wonka.
Then there’s the machinery and robotics in the factories themselves that require advanced engineering skills – and associated professional services like marketing, which have to be at the top of their game in such a competitive market.
So, the sector is an exciting and innovative one, but I know that it has also become increasingly aware of its responsibilities when it comes to the health of the nation. We are rightly concerned about obesity and the question of what we can do about it. Through the reformulation of products, the reduction in sugar and salt the food and drink sector has made serious attempts to help in this regard. Clearly further work needs to be done but at least we have a sector accepting its responsibilities and actually trying to do the right thing.
In the debate, my final observation on the sector was its contribution during the pandemic. Quite rightly we clapped the health workers for the dedication and commitment that they all made to helping people during the pandemic. But we could not have survived at all without food – and we absolutely should recognise the contribution that those who work in food and drink made; from the farmers who grew the produce to the workers in the factories who made the products to the delivery drivers who delivered them and to the shop workers who stacked and sold us our meals. Because of the number of food and drink producers in Carlisle, many people here worked right through the pandemic to feed not just our city, but the whole country and even different parts of the world.
We sometimes take our food supply for granted but one thing the pandemic did was highlight how important ensuring a safe secure and quality supply of food is to us all. Bar a few instances, our shop shelves remained packed throughout the worst of lockdown and I’m proud that here in Carlisle our people and businesses made such a contribution to making sure that was the case – and that during some of the most difficult times we’ve seen, the country still had biscuits to dunk.