Interview: James Withers, Scotland Food and Drink

As a man who bills himself as Scotland’s ambassador for food and drink there is one burning question that just has to be asked, writes Terry Murden. Has he ever eaten a deep-fried Mars Bar?

James Withers knows nice guys finish last and he has become an evangelist for Scotlands food and drink. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
James Withers knows nice guys finish last and he has become an evangelist for Scotlands food and drink. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
James Withers knows nice guys finish last and he has become an evangelist for Scotlands food and drink. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

James Withers smiles, ironically, an acknowledgement of the age-old infamy of one of Scotland’s more dubious delicacies.

“I have had one. I would not be in a hurry to buy another,” he says, adding that, yes, the association between Scotland and unhealthy food does irritate him. However, he is prepared to meet the opposition half-way.

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The chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink admits that the country’s track record divides opinion between those feeding the stand-up comedians with jokes about fatty flavoured confections, and the gastronomes who believe Scotland embraces some of the finest cuisine in the world.

“There is no such thing as bad food, just bad diet. We can be a bit nanny state about this. Everyone likes to treat themselves on things that they know won’t extend their lives but taste nice,” he says.

“We are a bit self-deprecating about our crisps and fizzy drinks, but overseas Scotland is noted for its salmon, fresh fruit, oats and other natural produce.”

The expanding middle classes in China and India in particular are fuelling greater demand for more premium food, and Scottish produce is high on the list in some of the world’s top destinations and from some of its leading cooks.

“We have one of the best larders on Earth, and that includes 70 species of seafood alone. Few countries have that variety,” says Withers.

“Top chefs like Albert Roux have nothing but great things to say about Scottish food. The French buy our cheese, the Japanese buy our salmon and the Germans buy our sausages. Yet our own dietary record is woeful.” In a nod to Robert Burns, he adds: “We need to see ourselves as others see us.”

However, the role of Scotland Food and Drink, created in 2007 and funded by the industry to lobby for the sector, is not educational. That is left to others. It is commercially focused and sees this year’s high-profile events such as the Commonwealth Games, the Homecoming and golf’s Ryder Cup, as an unprecedented global marketing opportunity.

Notwithstanding his desire to see greater appreciation at home, progress is being made. Food and drink has become the country’s fastest-growing export sector, leading to an upward revision in the targets for growth. In 2007 it was worth £10 billion, about the same as in the previous five years. The industry aimed for £12.5bn by 2017, but it is already at £13bn and a new target of £16.5bn has been set.

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Exports are up by 50 per cent in five years and Withers wants to see the current £5.4bn hit £7bn by 2017.

However, the vast bulk of this goes to the rest of the UK, and Withers wants more of it to be sold overseas. It is also heavily weighted to the whisky industry, which accounts for 80 per cent of the total.

“We are trying to get food sales up nearer to these levels. We need to internationalise our food more,” he says.

Withers, 37, was born in England and educated in Scotland. He took on his current job in September 2011 following a spell as parliamentary adviser and then chief executive at NFU Scotland. He has thrown himself into the role, appreciating the opportunity that comes with it to see a fair bit of the world. There have been missions to New Delhi, Shanghai and Toyko – all key growth markets – but the reward is in getting results.

“There is a growing demand for premium products but we have been locked out of some markets. Beef and lamb (which were hit by the BSE crisis in the 1990s) are just being sold in some countries after ten years. We need China and Japan to reopen. Dairy offers a huge untapped market. Premium cheese in India is growing by 55 per cent a year. China is changing. We cannot feed China, but we can capture key corners of the market, particularly in select hotels and restaurants.”

The industry is hugely varied and employs 330,000 people, from fishermen and farmers to the warehousemen in the whisky bottling plants, making it the biggest employer and manufacturer in Scotland. It is also 80 per cent family owned and therefore fragmented. Giving a single voice to such a sector is therefore a challenge in itself.

Another is the international interest in owning a slice of it and foreign owners, says Withers, need to be encouraged to think about Scotland when they are making their investments because manufacturing can be easily relocated.

For now, though, the focus is on the global events taking place on home soil, and none more so than the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow opening in July. During the 12-day event, two million meals will be served to athletes, spectators and officials, and for the first time in Scotland there will be a Food Charter issued to caterers that they must have a Scotland-first policy when it comes to sourcing supplies. A similar policy applied at the London Olympics and it is not only a huge boost for Scottish producers, but creates another opportunity to showcase Scottish produce.

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“We will look back on this as a golden period,” says Withers. “We will not get another chance like it.”

30-second cv

Job: Chief executive, Scotland Food and Drink.

Born: Colchester, moved to Scotland aged 11.

Age: 37.

Education: Stewart’s Melville, Edinburgh; Aberdeen University, studying politics and international relations.

Career: Parliamentary adviser, then chief executive, NFU Scotland 1999-2011.

Residence: Edinburgh.

First job: Waiter.

Ambition while at school:

PE teacher.

Car: Nissan Qashqai.

Music: Elbow, Green Day.

Can’t live without: Family and wine gums.

Claim to fame: Once served actors Mel Gibson and Jack Nicholson at the Sheraton, Edinburgh.

What makes you angry? Radio phone-ins.

Interests outside work: Football, golf, rugby and travel.