A gloriously sunny day, coupled with great organisation – hats off to anyone taking a chance on an outdoor event for British food and farming – and some punchy topics being discussed; I’d say that the second Festival of Fresh was a great success.

The morning on the Inspiration Stage kicked off with produce sector leaders discussing the current market place, the challenges of employment and the cost of production. With Michael Barker as host, we knew there would be some pithy questions and a good flow of discussion. He didn’t disappoint, dropping an early comment about DEFRA not being able to attend.

Labour was a key focus of the panel, Martin Emmett bringing an NFU perspective on the challenges of disentangling the need for seasonal labour from the militant immigration stance of the Conservatives. The need for longer-term permits was raised by all of the panel. It was felt that nine months would allow good training and development, and for the top fruit sector there would be time for staff to move from soft into top fruit before returning home.

James Simpson, on behalf of British Apples and Pears Ltd (BAPL), added that the whole of the fresh produce sector is trying to attract people and that there was also a need for skilled and regular labour. He said Kent had exceptionally low unemployment and that there was no longer a pipeline to bring people into the industry. 

There were, he said, many exciting opportunities that needed people with an interest in technology, science and the environment, along with marketing, sales, compliance and production openings.

  Jack Ward praised the intervention of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who backed the number of permits required and ensured that the 23 and 24 December meetings happened and that the eventual announcement reassured the industry. 

The fact that it takes the PM to cut through the noise and that he stopped the prevarication and blocking, forcing ministers to make a decision, is a sad indication of how this critical element of the sector’s future has to be secured.

 Beatrice Lugli from Kantar focussed on how consumer behaviour is changing to combat price increases, managing spend by deal shopping, shifting from brands to white label ranges and shifting down to a discounter format retailer.  

There are changes in priorities as well; varieties, health and sustainability have fallen out of favour, with cost the primary concern. Eco-active shopping has had the greater decrease in market share, with ethical importance and organic focus lines exiting the marketplace. Hob and oven usage is down and snacking is rising, while fewer desserts are being consumed. Eating out has been reduced, with premium range purchasing for more indulgent meals eaten in the home on the rise.

Tom Mackintosh, Tesco fresh produce and horticulture director, is a farmer’s son and someone who has worked on the production side of food. He knows what it takes to get food to a plate.

Acknowledging that the past 18 months had seen turmoil in the market, he warned that it wouldn’t be any less so going forward. The world is going to be more erratic and we need to get used to changes in costs that will change the way that we live, he said. 

Sourcing is a real challenge, given an understanding of the erratic nature of production and politics. The impact of the cost of living crisis is impacting all planning and Tesco has to span the breadth of consumer needs.  

Tom talked through the dynamics that led to the empty shelves earlier in the year, but what wasn’t clear was that while Tesco needs to be sure that there is reliable supply to consumers,  had he decided that long-term contracting vs dynamic balance of market still had a place in the supply chain?  He certainly mentioned consolidation more than once and often in relation to costs…