I recently attended Women in Food and Farming, which is an industry event that brings together professional women in the food, agriculture and land-based industries. The event aims to promote the food and farming sectors, while creating a space for attendees to openly discuss industry issues, as well as share tips on how to succeed within the industry.

On arrival, I found myself talking to two very interesting women; one a lawyer who specialises in rural affairs and the other an agricultural recruiter about business diversification in farming. Before long I found myself chatting to a crop and organic manager for a major multiple and a regional agricultural director for a national bank about the importance of events like LEAF Open Farm Sunday. I also spoke at length with a young farmer about the value of farmers understanding the value of communications.

While the event was primarily a networking event, the evening also promised to deliver interesting talks from three speakers, Grocery Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, the Head of Rural Research for Savills, Emily Norton, as well as Clare Clough, Food & Coffee Director for Pret A Manger. I was impressed with how honest and open all of the speakers were.

Christine kicked off the presentations by introducing the event and explaining the importance of helping other women in the industry and being a mentor to those at the beginning of their careers. Straight after Christine, was Emily Norton, who was in fact someone who Christine had mentored herself over the years. Emily went on to give a dynamic and energetic download of her role and experiences as a woman in food and farming, as well as the trends resulting from the agricultural bill.

The final speaker was Clare Clough, Pret A Manger’s Food & Coffee Director, who set about covering three topics – her background and her role – what is Pret A Manger Food? – and how Pret A Manger handled the Natasha Ednan-Laperouse crisis. Given the incredibly sensitive nature of the third topic, we were lucky to have such a candid and straight-talking speaker.

One of the interesting points I took from Clare’s talk was how Pret A Manger only use 150 ingredients in their food lines, and only have 80 products at a time – these ingredients are regularly rotated (as one comes in, one goes out, which means customer choice is kept fresh). It was also interesting to hear that the summer range, which launched on 4 April, includes eight new vegan products, while six are vegetarian. Clare also explained that Pret A Manger prides itself not on “being the first”, but “being the best”, as while they knew they wouldn’t be the first to launch gluten-free bread, they spent more than a year perfecting what they believed to be the best in the market.

The room went silent in anticipation of Clare’s final topic – the Natasha Ednan-Laperouse crisis. It was the story that sent sadness and shockwaves around the nation in July 2016, and which has ultimately changed the way that food and drink retailers label ingredients and allergens on pack. Clare spoke openly about her team’s reaction to the news, as one of shock, and described how deeply the tragic case affected them. As a result of Natasha’s death, the company moved quickly to establish the route of the issue and carried out a review of their product labelling. They found they were simply not doing enough. This is something which they are now trying to rectify as in October 2018, Pret A Manger announced that full ingredient labelling will be introduced to all products that are freshly made in its shop kitchens. The labels will list all ingredients, including allergens. They are currently trialling this in 10 stores and plan to roll this out to the remaining UK stores as soon as possible.

As the night drew to a close, I felt fortunate that in just one short evening I had met and shared the experiences of a number of brave, honest and compassionate women, like Clare.

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