Business

Agri-food industry strikes optimistic note at IGFS lecture

Managing director of Waitrose, Rob Collins delivered the keynote lecture at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) Annual Lecture

BREXIT presents an "opportunity" for the agri-food industry to showcase the “best of British” according to the managing director of supermarket retailer Waitrose.

Delivering the keynote lecture at the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) Annual Lecture, Rob Collins was in a positive mood in spite of the ongoing uncertainty surrounding the sector.

"We will not be in a race to the bottom. Post-Brexit, we need to maintain our leadership in food and farming," he said.

Mr Collins said he was “optimistic” about the food retail sector, despite the “ferocious” competition between retailers.

“The competitive landscape has become so difficult. Waitrose operational profits are down and we have been determined not to pass on price increases to our customers – that has all put a severe squeeze on our margins,” he said.

“But I'm very optimistic. Innovation inspires people. 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.”

The event, at Riddel Hall, Belfast, was attended by a capacity audience made up of local agri-food industry representatives, scientists, researchers and academics from IGFS, which is part of Queen's University. Also in the audience were the Acting Vice-Chancellor of Queen's University, Professor James McElnay; the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Medicine, Health and Life Sciences Faculty at Queen's, Professor Chris Elliott OBE (who founded IGFS); and the Director of IGFS, Professor Nigel Scollan.

The chairman of Devenish Nutrition, Owen Brennan and the chief executive of Moy Park , Janet McCollum also gave addresses at the event.

In her lecture, Mrs McCollum said the Northern Ireland agri-food industry "punches above its weight” and that change was an integral part of the agri-food sector, and Brexit merely intensified that.

“You can never stand still in this business. From our humble beginnings in Moygashel to having 12,000 employees across Europe, the biggest lesson we have learned is that consumer wellbeing is always at the core.”

Mr Brennan said 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. They will not allow standards to slip. We have to have confidence in them – you have to move forward while looking forward.”

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