This year’s Food & Drink Expo in association with The Grocer hosted some of the biggest names in food and drink, who revealed their thoughts on many of the hottest topics in the sector right now.

Speaking across three days, and over a series of stages at the NEC in Birmingham from 29 April to 1 May, headline acts included Rosemary Shrager, Heather Mills and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

Whether you missed the show or wish to reflect on some key points, The Grocer editorial team has compiled the top thoughts and themes from the event below.

Diversity and inclusion

Mapping out a more diverse and stronger fmcg sector were focuses for The Grocer managing editor Emma Weinbren and digital & social editor Rachel Graham, who each hosted panels that delved into various elements of the topic.

Speaking about launching new food and drink brands, Sam Akinluyi, UK&I managing director at Innocent Drinks, said: “It’s a lifetime of commitment that some have and some don’t. We have to go out of our way to help new founders.”

Amie Burke, inclusivity programme manager, IGD, said: “Is there a need for things like Grocery Girls and black and LGBT power lists? I think people get complacent and fall back on data and initiatives. We need these to remind people that some people don’t have the head start others are given.”

Cecil Adjalo, co-founder & COO of Foundervine, said: “We are at a critical point in society where diversity is at the forefront. Maybe in 30 or 40 years we won’t need ethnic minority power lists.”

Achieving a work-life balance

Speaking about women leaders who are shaping the UK food and drink industry, FDF CEO Karen Betts said: “I had a BlackBerry then I had an iPhone so I wasn’t out of touch when I went on maternity leave. But there is a downside to that – there’s no longer an in-built demarcation between your work life and home life.”

Suzy McClintock, VP of grocery and retail, Deliveroo, said: “Remember you can have boundaries with your employer. If you don’t want to respond to emails between 5pm and 7pm because you’re with your children, just make sure you let them know that’s what you’re doing. Be confident in setting those boundaries and try to work for companies that have those policies in place to support you.”

Suzie Dixon, convenience director, Britvic, said: “We’ve got to attract the next generation of women into the industry. The industry has shown great progress, D&I is now hardwired in many businesses, but we absolutely need to do more. There is still bias and stereotypes on gender that exist – certain characteristics in male leaders like assertiveness can be perceived not so positively in female leaders. Representation is absolutely important.”

The future of meat and ultra-processed foods

While shaping the future of the industry through stronger EDI practices was a core theme, understanding the trends driving the future of the industry was also a key topic for speakers.

Multi-award winning writer and broadcaster, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, explained in conversation with The Grocer editor-in-chief Adam Leyland meat was now the ‘spice’ at River Cottage. “If you have our 11-course chef’s tasting menu, you might have a little bit of homemade charcuterie, you’ll have a very small portion of meat, maybe some fish but seven courses of plants. The balance is shifting towards plants.

“The bit that always gets left out is the plants that aren’t even pretending to be meat but still taste incredible. You don’t need to be cooking with meat substitutes every day when you could be using pulses and nuts and fruits and seeds.”

On snacking and the evolution of the humble crisp, Proper Snacks founder Cassandra Stavrou believes the category has moved on considerably. “There’s a lot of noise around healthy snacks, and a few years ago the market was more than 95% potato. It’s through bases like lentil that you can deliver positive benefits to nutrition,” she said.

VBites founder Heather Mills, also speaking to Leyland, said health, and the rise of UPFs, was driving more people towards plant-based lifestyles, claiming one day meat and dairy would “look like smoking”.

She added: “Only now are people starting to pay the price, understanding the health and the environment” after years of costs being too high compared with non-vegan alternatives.

“UPF came from the fear in the meat and dairy industry, so that’s a positive. It’s a good thing because they’re afraid. So we need to push back.”

A need to focus on environment and sustainability was echoed by Rosemary Shrager, who urged consumers to, like her, think of where they’re buying their food from. “It’s so important to support local shops,” she said. “Especially with climate change, it’s so important to buy local.” 

Read the full rundown – minute-by-minute – of the Food & Drink Expo by reading the event’s blog.