2021: Looking back at a year in fine food

05 January 2022, 07:06 AM
  • Speciality Food reflects on how the food and drink sector adapted to the 'new normal’ last year
2021: Looking back at a year in fine food


1st January marked the end of the Brexit transition period, officially kicking off the UK’s new relationship with the European Union. Although an eleventh-hour deal was agreed, increased paperwork and trade delays began causing issues for retailers and producers. Meanwhile, the UK entered its third national lockdown, which would last until a phased reopening in March. Despite these challenges, food campaigns were a point of interest for retailers, as Veganuary attracted 580,000 participants and Dry January estimated as many as 6.5 million people would be involved.


The Government unveiled a £20m cash fund for small businesses struggling with post-Brexit import and export rules, but Andrew Goodacre, CEO of Bira, dismissed the plans as a “sticking plaster” over the “real problems” of Brexit. At the same time, trust in Britain’s own food makers was growing. A survey by IGD recorded trust in the food industry for health and ethics was at record levels, with strong support for local suppliers, farmers and communities.


In the Spring Budget, chancellor Rishi Sunak announced a £520m Help to Grow scheme in addition to a £5bn rescue plan for hospitality and retail. The Food and Drink Federation said the announcements “struck the right balance”, but some hospitality companies said more could have been done to help businesses get back on their feet. March also saw the England begin its phased exit out of lockdown, which caused shopper confidence to rise.


In England and Wales, non-essential shops got the green light to open, and although that meant increased competition for food retailers, it also led to increased footfall as high streets and retail destinations filled up and a “forgotten energy” returned. This led to a return to some pre-Covid habits, boosting sectors such as food to go.


May marked the return of indoor hospitality, with cafés and restaurants reopening in England, Wales and Scotland. Shopper confidence continued to soar and retailers looked forward to a staycation-related rise in sales over the spring and summer.


The Government revealed it had reached a free trade agreement with Australia, the first new deal following Brexit. Farmers weren’t impressed by the historic deal, with NFU president Minette Batters saying it would have “serious implications for British farming” due to its lack of detail about animal welfare and environmental standards. Later, the first signs that there were problems in the supply chain became clear as a shortfall of HGV drivers threatened a return to lockdown-style food shortages.


The National Food Strategy was published, which contained a number of recommendations to improve the UK’s food system, including introducing the world’s first sugar and salt tax to drive reformulations, investing £1bn in innovation and trialling a programme where GPs could prescribe fruit and veg to improve diets. Meanwhile, summer sporting events gave savvy retailers a chance to ramp up sales, and on ‘Freedom Day’ face covering requirements were dropped in England.


Supply chain issues continued to disrupt food supplies at supermarkets, but indies generally faced fewer shortages and could respond to any stocking issues more quickly than the multiples. At the same time, the removal of Covid restrictions boosted the food to go sector and convenience-led products as consumers dealt with cooking fatigue and shopping habits settled in a ‘new normal’.


The fine food sector reunited for a much-needed celebration at the Speciality & Fine Food Fair at Olympia London. Meanwhile, labour shortages were still hitting the food sector, and a shortfall of carbon dioxide was yet another blow to the industry. While the food and drink sector called for a Covid Recovery Visa, the Government’s sights were set further afield as it announced an initiative to help more farmers and food businesses export their products. The new scheme involves appointing dedicated ‘agri-food attachés’ and establishing a Food and Drink Exports Council.


Throughout October, Speciality Food, alongside Too Good To Go, ran Sustainable Food Month to highlight environmental achievements in the fine food sector and illuminate the ways that industry players can take responsibility for making the sector a more sustainable place. The Autumn Budget, meanwhile, included a decision to temporarily reduce business rates for shops and restaurants.


Sustainability was on the agenda in November too, thanks to the historic climate conference, COP26, being held in Scotland. Food and drink businesses argued that the industry wasn’t represented enough in the talks. Some of the decisions made at the event included moving trillions of dollars of private finance towards supporting green technology, a pledge to reverse deforestation and an agreement to cut methane emissions.


The final month of the year saw the arrival of the Omicron variant in the UK and the reintroduction of Covid-19 restrictions. Government precautions have included bringing mask mandates back in, as well as requiring Covid passports in some locations and limits on the size of gatherings.

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