She’s only been in the job for eight months, but it looks as though Joanne Denney-Finch is already making an impression as chairman of the Food Chain Centre.
“Deirdre was good,” says one senior figure involved in the FCC privately, “but in Joanne people are pleased to have someone who really understands the food supply chain.”
The inference is not that Dame Deirdre, who left to take up the chairmanship of the Food Standards Agency, did not understand the industry, but that through her work for the National Consumer Council, which she chaired for five years, she was by default closer to consumers than she was to the food industry.
In Denney-Finch, who is also chief executive of the IGD, the FCC unquestionably has someone who eats and breathes supply chain issues on a daily basis.
The FCC, one of the bodies to emerge from the Curry Commission, was set up in 2002. Funded largely by government grants and dependent on the IGD for resources, its remit is to help create a sustainable UK food chain, with a particular focus on how farmers and growers can do better.
Farmers are encouraged to form business improvement groups so they can share information, benchmark against each other and collaborate in areas that could save them all money, such as feed purchasing.
The FCC is just shy of its fourth birthday and Denney-Finch is keen to highlight the effect it has had so far.
When the FCC started, just 9% of National Farmers’ Union members benchmarked their businesses against the most efficient; now 25% do so. “That is a huge shift,” she says. “The FCC doesn’t take all the credit for this, but we will have been one of the catalysts for change.”
The FCC’s work hasn’t just been about farmers - manufacturers and retailers have been getting involved, too, primarily through Value Chain Analysis (VCA) exercises.
Here, a farmer, a processor and a retailer let FCC analysts pick apart one of their supply chains. The analysts make recommendations to all parties involved based on their findings.
Some 13 VCAs have been done and in many, says Denney-Finch, possible savings of up to 20% have been identified.
Sometimes, farmers involved in VCAs admit that until they had taken part, they knew little about what happened to the animal or crop they produced after they’d sold it.
In one recent example, the VCA of a beef brisket supply chain, the cattle farmer said of the project: “The experience was invaluable to me as a process of education and understanding how the whole chain works - irrespective of how powerless I am to influence it.”
This last remark is revealing. While farmers are often urged to think harder about the end users of their produce, it isn’t always easy because they are so far removed from them.
The FCC has looked at how it can empower farmers more effectively. And, subscribing to the philosophy that knowledge is power, it has set up the Dunnhumby Academy of Consumer Research. Based at the University of Kent, it will offer farmers detailed market information to help them adapt their businesses to meet current and future demand.
Denney-Finch says: “Through Dunnhumby, which manages Tesco Clubcard data, we have access to one million household records over several years. This information could help farmers decide which products to focus on - and in which parts of the country.”
Farmer-owned cheese maker Long Clawson was among the first to try the service. It was anxious to see what was happening to sales of Stilton.
Denney-Finch says: “One of the things that shocked them was that their customers are quite old, which - if you follow it through to its logical conclusion - means they are dying. It’s made them think about how they can attract younger consumers.”
The academy data is, of course, the same as that which helped make Tesco great.
It is unlikely to have quite the same effect on farmers, but it could help many see light at the end of the tunnel when otherwise they would be floundering in the dark.