In light of COVID and the uncertainty around Brexit with regard to food safety, consumers are increasingly appreciative of British producers and attracted to all things local, but these extraordinary times are throwing up obstacles as well as opportunities says Jane Wolfe
In October, MPs rejected an amendment to the Agriculture Bill designed to safeguard animal welfare and food safety rules and ensure that post-Brexit food imports would meet domestic legal standards and the UK market wouldn’t be flooded with low quality food, such as chlorinated chicken and hormone-fattened beef.
A disheartening result for sure, but if this decision stands, might it give a boost to those British producers who can provide consumers with assurances of quality and safety with locally grown produce or products made with fully traceable ingredients, that is: the ‘best of British’?
“Supporting local, and British, food producers helps to improve our food resilience by
investing in the local supply chain”
“We believe that locally and British-grown/produced food will become even more important to consumers as a mark of quality and reassurance,” says Matt Philpott, marketing manager of Bristol retailer Better Food. “We advocate going a step further; where possible we believe that consumers should be able to trace their food back to an individual farm or grower. In an age where food standards are up for debate, we believe that organic certification is more important than ever, as a way of ensuring the provenance and standards of food.
The B word
“We’re in no doubt that Brexit will affect British food producers and we support the food standards petition launched by the BFU. Over the long term, and irrespective of Brexit, we are confident that the quality of British food will lead to new opportunities. We’re passionate that as much of the food we buy and eat should be as local as possible and will continue to champion this way of retailing.”
Listing the benefits of this ethos, Philpott continues: “British and particularly locally sourced food is fresher and therefore tastes better. The fruit and vegetables are seasonal, which means the price for customers is better and the quality is higher. Lower food miles mean it has a lower impact on the environment. Finally, supporting local, and British, food producers helps to improve our food resilience by investing in the local supply chain.”
Around two years ago, UK-based ethical VMS company Viridian Nutrition set up a Brexit committee – including a Government advisor from the Department of International Trade and a regulatory specialist – so it could keep an eye on the Government’s position and adjust its plans accordingly. “Around 25% of our business is with EU countries, including our much-loved Ireland, so we take Brexit very seriously – hoping for the best, but planning for the worst,” says founder Cheryl Thallon. “We vow to ensure that our European health store stockists will not feel the pain of Brexit, neither the bureaucratic burden nor the direct financial costs. Viridian will take this responsibility to allow our stockists to continue ‘business as usual’.”
She notes that the natural products sector is no stranger to regulatory challenges and is in no doubt that it will ‘come out the other side stronger and wiser’.
“Maintaining control of the production process from the seed to the finished item is essential to sustainable quality”
“Internationally, our worldwide network of distributors tell us that Britishness implies a trusted quality and leading-edge innovation, which gives us an advantage in many countries,” stresses Thallon, who acknowledges that having a ‘British made’ stamp doesn’t ‘automatically confer a halo’, but that local manufacture has significant benefits. “Maintaining control of the production process from the seed to the finished item is essential to sustainable quality,” she says.
So, what does ‘best of British’ mean to her? “A mixture of pride in our nation’s achievements in innovation, democracy and fairness, but with an acute anxiety associated with recent developments to weaken our connections with other countries and what an isolationist Britain might involve – the loss of Scotland to the Union would be a tragedy.
“Viridian Nutrition lives in the supplement category of the specialist health food store, so to me ‘best of British’ in this context means local and environmental.”
According to the Building Back Better: Fixing the Future of Food report by Veris Strategies, 80% of consumers think COVID-19 has affected how they value the food they buy, with nine out of ten expecting the crisis will lead to healthier, more sustainable and ethical food consumption. Positive news indeed. Not so uplifting however is the fact that 78% of the industry experts questioned believe the pandemic has exposed ‘serious weaknesses’ in the UK food system, with 96% feeling it is ‘not yet equipped to deal with the long-term impacts of COVID-19’.
“There is a huge opportunity for food businesses to step up and play a crucial role in improving people’s health and making societies and economies less vulnerable to future pandemics, and there is clear consumer demand for them to take a lead,” says consultancy founder Kate Cawley. “Nearly one-third of consumers want retailers to do more to promote healthier food choices, and more than one in five want them to help educate people on diet and nutrition.”
It goes without saying that independent health food stores are perfectly positioned to facilitate this as well as satisfy consumers’ growing desire to buy British, as local sourcing is a major USP and one that has enabled many to not only survive, but thrive during the pandemic.
“Across Bristol we’ve noticed even more people who are looking to buy local food,” says Philpott. “The crisis has perhaps served to highlight how important our local food suppliers are and that we need to support and nurture them for the future.”
He says that when the crisis hit, Better Food’s buying philosophy was a definite advantage. “We’re lucky in that the majority of our supply chains are very, very local. The proximity to great producers and the fair, long-lasting relationships we’ve built meant we’ve seen little impact in terms of our core supply chain. This, we believe, is evidence that supporting local producers is beneficial for the business, consumers and the local economy.
“During the early part of the crisis a number of our suppliers resisted the temptation to supply large supermarkets when approached, sticking to their core values by ensuring products were available for small independent stores. Of course, during the early spring, demand for our produce increased significantly and we had to work really hard to keep the shelves stocked. We can’t pretend certain items like flour and yeast were always available early on, but for us, this settled relatively quickly.”
Thallon says COVID was a ‘massive challenge’ – from supply chain management to health store marketing and training. “Everything from lids, labels and jars to immune ingredients were in short supply,” she says. “The stock shortages in our industry through April to June were largely due to raw material shortages as farmers and extraction houses caught up with the sudden spike in demand. We took the decision to apply a rule of fairness to stock allocation – spreading the pain fairly – so most stores had product on shelf for most of the time.”
Viridian has since completely re-jigged its warehouse hub, adding an extra 15% capacity, and increased stock levels ‘ready for COVID part two and Brexit’.
“For me, ‘best of British’ conjures up images of a bountiful harvest,” says
Laila Amakye Mensah, founder of British brand Wild Seed Botanicals. “Quality and safety: those are two things that can always be expected from British-made products, especially when it comes to beauty.”
As part of its sustainability mission, Wild Seed Botanicals – which produces a range of handmade skincare using wildcrafted, organic ingredients – works with local suppliers whenever possible: “I think it’s important for our community, for them to know the direct impact of how they spend their money.”
Ghanaian-born Amakye Mensah launched the ethical natural brand in 2017 to address a lack of representation within the indie beauty market. “I felt like all the brands I adored and championed didn’t really represent me within their marketing … there was also a lack of black-owned brands within that industry representing wellness holistically. Our mission is to provide high performance, clean and sustainable skincare specifically targeted at addressing skin concerns of POC and create moments of intentionality and wellbeing for our community.”
The brand was born in London but has its roots ‘firmly planted in the heart of African holistic traditions’. “As a second-generation immigrant, growing up I was always reminded that my heritage and culture are my inheritance. Something to hold on to, cherish and pass on to generations to come. I wanted Wild Seed to be a fusion of those two cultures, from ingredient selection right down to product names and the stories they echo.”
Amakye Mensah says she is concerned about where her business will stand post-Brexit because of the continuing uncertainty. “Will EU cosmetic laws still apply? Will we need to have our product formulations reassessed? I’m also worried about our EU-based customers in terms of custom fees, etc.”
Like many small companies, Wild Seed has experienced mixed fortunes with the pandemic: “COVID definitely had a two-fold effect on the business. There was an increase in our sales, which was a delight, but we also struggled with getting orders out successfully to our international customers. Increases in things like Royal Mail shipping also had a huge impact on some of our biggest markets. So far, perhaps we’re too small a business, but we haven’t qualified for any of the support offered by the Government. Could they do more? I would say yes.”
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