To many school-leavers, the industry remains an unglamorous world of white coats and hairnets, and the result is an alarming shortage of qualified food technicians.
A survey of 65 manufacturing companies by recruitment consultants Daniels Bates Partnership for The Independent has revealed that 14 per cent of firms have no hygiene or quality manager. Major companies said they were having immense problems recruiting staff.
Tim Lang, professor of food policy at Thames Valley University, said: "It's very worrying. The food industry has got its highest-ever profile in peacetime and yet it needs to do some long and hard thinking about how it recruits graduates. Part of the problem is that food is still seen as a low-class, low-wage economy."
Shirley Heaney, personnel manager of British Bakeries, said: "There is a misconception among young people that if they are training to be scientists they will be working in a laboratory. In fact, we are a lot more varied and exciting. They are also put off by silly things like having to wear a hairnet.
"As bakers we have got to get the message across that ... we are at the cutting edge of some of the food fashions. We need creative people interested in food to help us develop these concepts and ideas."
John Cridland, resourcing manager at HJ Heinz in Wigan, Greater Manchester, is also experiencing staffing problems. "It is very difficult to recruit good quality managers with relevant experience and man management skills because there is a shortage of suitably qualified candidates," he said.
News of the crisis comes on the day the Government publishes its long- awaited White Paper on the new, independent Food Standards Agency.
On the BBC's Food and Drink programme last night Professor Hugh Pennington, who carried out the investigation into the E. coli outbreak in Scotland which killed 20 people, said not enough was being done to prevent further such outbreaks. Last year, a record 100,000 people suffered from food poisoning.
- Ian BurrellReuse content