andrea leadsom

Leadsom told the Tory party conference earlier this month that the UK would sell naan bread to India, which attracted scorn from the industry

Armed with an ambitious action plan and can-do attitude, Andrea Leadsom spent yesterday at Sial in Paris spreading the word about the untapped potential for Britain’s food and drink industry to trade more across the globe.

The new secretary of state for environment, food & rural affairs enthused about UK food and drink exports rising 6% in the first half of 2016, but highlighted that just one in five companies in the industry were currently in on the act.

Defra and its Great British Food Unit plan to boost overseas trade by £2.9bn in the next five years with nine campaigns across 18 countries. The official line spun in the International Action Plan 2016-2020 is that leaving the EU will put the UK firmly at the forefront of global trade and investment.

But not everyone is convinced by the rhetoric. Many exhibitors showcasing their wares at Sial, along with those just visiting, who spoke to The Grocer expressed grave concerns about whether or not the government’s plans were grounded in reality.

Liam Fox, the head of the new Department for International Trade, which is captaining the ship for the UK in this brave new world, has already attracted derision on social media for tweeting that “France needs high quality, innovative British jams”.

Leadsom attracted even more scorn for telling the Tory party conference this month the UK would sell naan bread to India. Her new strategy, which includes plans to export beef to Japan (where UK beef imports are currently banned), has received a similarly frosty welcome from some.

One supplier at Sial was particularly unimpressed with a one-on-one chat with Leadsom, whom he labelled as “wooden, easy with the soundbites and worryingly short on detail”.

There were indeed plenty of soundbites at Sial, with the minister telling The Grocer in a short interview that she was happy to hear from her visit that “British products are cool”.

“I’m also hearing from the ambassador to France that a new sandwich bar has opened around the corner to the embassy serving a delicious Cheddar sandwich. So in the land of cheeses there is a great demand for English Cheddar,” she added.

Thankfully, the 25-page glossy action plan has more detail about just how the governments aims to grow exports to Australia & New Zealand by £293m, Mexico & Latin America by £215m, China by £405m and India by £349m (as well as to US & Canada, Japan, UAE & Gulf, France, and Germany).

A priority in Australia and New Zealand will be targeting key retail buyers, in-store promotions and category development. The plan also flags up the Australian prime minister’s enthusiasm to strike a quick trade deal with the UK – stemming from Malcolm Turnbull’s comments following talks with Theresa May at a G20 summit in China last month.

However, the Aussie trade minister Steven Ciobo warned on Radio 4’s Today programme that negotiations would be fraught with complexity and would have to wait until the UK formally left the EU, with any deal potentially two-and-a-half years away.

Leadsom talked up the rewards on offer for exporting more pork to China, pointing to soaring trade to the country for UK pigs. But what the minister, or the plan, fails to point out is that China has been buying up cheap British pork as the pound slumps to make up for a domestic shortfall. UK producers worry how sustainable this is for the long term.

And some of the big meat suppliers exhibiting at Sial said (off the record) that access remains an issue, in China and elsewhere, with many concerned about the kind of deal individual European countries will offer after the UK exits the union.

“They will be lining up to give us a bloody nose to set an example, and our products will undoubtedly have less access to important European markets,” one said. “Politicians are just not aware of how difficult EU countries could make life for us post-Brexit.”

A recent major survey by the FDF, which is working with Defra to make the action plan a reality, indicated Brexit is already having a massive negative impact on the industry, with more than two-thirds of suppliers less confident about their business since the referendum.

To be fair to the government, Defra should be applauded for drawing up highly ambitious plans for growing trade around the world. And most companies at Sial have nothing but positive words for the help and support offered by UKTI, which is now part of the Department for International Trade, and the Great British Food Unit. Advisers had been influential in helping with labelling translations, setting up trade missions and offering support for exhibiting at big shows such as Sial, they said. Leadsom’s plan calls for more of this kind of support. Moreover, the government can’t be expected to shoulder the burden alone, with trade associations and industry bodies having a vital role to play in helping businesses dip a toe in overseas waters.

There is no doubt the appetite is there from UK food and drink businesses to export substantially more in the next five years.

And suppliers at Sial are clear they don’t want handouts from government. What they want is more clarity and an end to uncertainty.

Leadsom, who visits China next month, has launched her vision, but all eyes will now turn to chancellor Philip Hammond in the hope of a sweetener in the upcoming Autumn Statement to help make those plans a reality.

Take our poll

How big an opportunity are exports in wake of sterling slump?

The Grocer is polling food and drink manufacturers on the exports opportunity in the wake of Brexit. How big an opportunity is it? Which countries/regions provide the biggest opportunity? What impact is the Brexit deal having on trading with EU customers? And how much faith do suppliers have in the help that government has provided?

Enter by clicking on the button below - and have your say.