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29 June, 2021 - 20:52 By Tony Quested

East of England food and drink manufacturers eye growth

East of England food and drink manufacturers have endured the twin challenges of COVID-19 and Brexit with resilience and strength and are ploughing ahead with growth, according to new research from BDO. 

Despite a year of substantial change and uncertainty, BDO’s Food & Drink Report 2021 shows that more than three quarters of businesses are feeling positive about their future prospects with 68 per cent expecting profitability to increase in the next 12 months. 

New product development, expansion into fresh UK markets and investment in production are the top three areas of growth identified. Business leaders also see sustainability as a key focus, particularly in reducing waste, plastics and emissions.

However, challenges remain for the sector which employs 34,000 people in the East of England and contributes £2.64 billion to the regional economy. Almost a third of the businesses questioned experienced a decrease in margins last year and, with rising inflation on the horizon, increased pricing pressures are expected.

Keith Ferguson, partner at BDO in East Anglia, said: “Across the region, sectors from hospitality to the arts have taken body blows from COVID-19 that will require a long period of recovery.

“Fortunately, food and drink has proved more resilient to the impact of the pandemic, which has been positive for the local economy as a whole. Food & drink manufacturers in the East of England employ 34,000 people and are responsible for exporting more than £2 bn of products a year. This a vital and vibrant sector in our regional economy. 

“While there are clearly still many challenges ahead, food and drink manufacturing has held up remarkably well. Business leaders have been quick to react to the challenging and ever-changing trading environment.”

The ongoing impact of COVID-19 is the largest challenge by some margin, cited by 67 per cent as the biggest threat to their business. An overwhelming majority (85 per cent) said they had been forced to reassess their business strategies as a result of COVID-19.

In a show of the sector’s resilience, less than half had utilised the Government’s job retention scheme. Supply chains were also able to hold up well in the face of Covid-related lockdowns and other restrictions; while three quarters of businesses experienced delays, they did not stop production.

One of the biggest shifts in focus for food and drink manufacturers over the last few years – albeit not surprising given the twin challenges of Brexit and COVID-19 – is an increased emphasis on new UK markets for business growth. 

According to the BDO report, expansion into new UK markets (56 per cent) is now in joint first place with new product development as a business growth priority – a huge jump from 34 per cent three years ago.

Almost two-thirds of respondents cite customs procedures as the biggest Brexit challenge they have experienced to date. 

BDO reports that food and drink manufacturers are calling for improved support for exporting and clear, relevant tax incentives to encourage investment. 

Ferguson adds: “The industry is a huge employer and accounts for 20 per cent of total UK manufacturing. It is an industry with ambitious – yet sensible – growth targets. 

“With the right support in place, not only could these businesses thrive post-pandemic, but they could also play an important role in creating a green economy, driving digital innovation and productivity, and levelling up the regional economic divide.”

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