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Foodservice managers are looking on the bright side of Brexit

With just four months to go until the UK-EU divorce, there was every chance that the latest UKHospitality report would be a grim read. But that’s not the case, says David Burrows.

It’s hard to find good news these days. As one Guardiancommentator noted recently: we now live in dark, depressing, God-awful times … and every day we are witness to a parade of awfulness. War, famine, the rise of the far right, the Donald, austerity, climate change and biodiversity loss – to name just a handful.

Here in the UK, much of the negative energy is focused on our divorce from the European Union – a dark cloud that has hovered almost relentlessly above these isles since June 2016. Though the negotiating process has become laughable, there has been little to cheer. Which is why I downloaded the 2018 edition of UKHospitality’s “Food Service Management Report” ready to pen 500 words of yet more pessimism. The first lines did not augur well. “Analysis of the data has shown the main concerns [of foodservice leaders] are over the ability to hire workers … and food price inflation”, both of which are “exacerbated by Brexit”.

But read on and chinks of light begin to appear. “There is a strong focus on nutrition and health eating and sustainable food sourcing.” More than 90% of foodservice management (FSM) clients see health and nutrition as “important” or “critically important”. Among the FSM leaders surveyed, 73% named healthier eating as a key trend – second only to street food – while meat-free eating was mentioned by 55% of respondents, up from just 10% last year. And businesses are responding – every one of those involved in the report displayed nutritional information to customers (73% have calorie labels and 73% are promoting lower-calorie options). Some 91% are including more fruit and veg in their menus and 64% have reduced the meat options available.

Healthy eating was rated the most important of all sustainability initiatives (an average of 6.8 out of 9). Perhaps unsurprisingly, waste reduction isn’t far behind (6.5). All businesses are introducing “sustainable alternatives” to single-use plastic items, while 91% are reducing use of single-use items. Removing unnecessary plastic items is good news, but firms need to be careful when selecting any substitute materials. That 91% are implementing a comprehensive food waste action plan is perhaps the standout statistic. Given that stream’s carbon footprint and the money that could be saved, it could be argued that food waste reduction should take priority over plastic.

Looking beyond waste, 91% of businesses are sourcing local food. Dig a little deeper into the data and they show: in 72% of the businesses surveyed, at least 50% of the food (by value) is British, and of those, half said at least 75% is from the UK. And they are looking on the bright side of Brexit, which could result in an “improved and enlarged British food supply chain”.

Of course, unpick the feelings towards Brexit and the key concerns are clear: access to labour (73%) and food price inflation and product availability (73%). Confidence in the government has crept up since last year but remains low: only 27% are confident that the government supports the hospitality industry, with most (82%) wanting more support to improve the attractiveness of catering as a long-term career choice.

And finally, 36% of leaders wanted the government to accelerate the timetable for Brexit negotiations. That it will all just end is an increasingly Panglossian view after the mayhem of the past two weeks, but let’s try to keep our glasses half full.

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