A no-deal Brexit could result in a shortage of perishable goods and hard-to-grow products on British shelves, experts have warned.
The UK food industry said the main impact of such a departure from the bloc will be on fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables, which cannot be stockpiled by retailers or consumers and are largely imported from the EU during the winter months.
Others said disruption to supply chains – such as through lengthy stops at borders – could have implications for product availability and consumer choice.
A Food and Drink Federation (FDF) spokesman said: “Delays and blockages at the ports would pose a particular threat. On average, we import 40% of our food and drink either directly from or via the EU.
“However, our reliance on importing is significantly higher around the October 31 exit date. We are concerned about the impact on imports where Government isn’t able to secure continuity deals for existing EU preferential trade agreements.
“A no-deal scenario would see the current flows of goods into the UK be significantly reduced for a period of months at a minimum. Limited shelf life products are where impacts will be likely felt, such as fruit and vegetables, salads, certain meats and essential ingredients like processed egg.
“There is no predictability around the types of goods that will get stuck in transit on their way into the UK, and therefore the impacts for consumers and manufacturers due to delays.
“FDF supports the closest possible trade and regulatory alignment between the UK and EU and an immigration policy which ensures access to the workers we need.”
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, said: “Retailers are working with their suppliers to maintain stocks of non-perishable goods and plan ahead for any disruption caused by a no-deal Brexit, but the best way to avoid it altogether is for the UK to agree a deal with the EU.”
Here are some of the items experts told PA might be affected:
Around 90% of the UK’s salad leaves from the middle of September through the winter are produced in the Murcia region of south-east Spain. The majority of other salad staples – such as peppers and cucumbers – also make a similar route through continental Europe, arriving at Dover to be dispatched to distribution centres and into the food chain.
So uncertainty over a no-deal Brexit means there are situations where green veg is at a premium.
Dieter Lloyd, spokesman for the British Leafy Salads Association, said poor growing conditions in southern Spain in 2017 resulted in some products increasing five-fold in price at wholesale.
He said: “Put simply, we can’t grow this stuff here. We have some facilities where we grow leaves under glass but not on any mass scale.
“Leafy salads have a shelf life – the clock is ticking from the moment it’s harvested, and retailers want to ensure they have a quality product with a decent shelf life.
“At the moment there is uncertainty about potential hold-ups at Dover, which will limit the amount of time a perishable product can last on shelves.
“We could be looking at a situation where some retailers decide not to stock it, some will look to import from outside the EU, and others will try to limit bulk buying.
“It means there is a potential for products to be unavailable or at a premium.”
The EU’s importance in producing cheese for the UK cannot be underestimated.
So much so that Liz Truss, now Trade Secretary and formerly chief secretary to the Treasury, famously described the two-thirds import rate as “a disgrace”.
The figures are stark.
In 2015, some 101,634 tonnes of cheddar cheese were imported to the UK, of which 98% was from the EU.
The following year, 96,449 tonnes of cheddar made its way to the UK, with 91,866 of that originating in Europe.
By 2017, some 91,816 tonnes of the 92,189 of cheddar imported were from the EU, while all but 85 tonnes of the 108,484 in 2018 was from Europe.
Similarly, since 2015, at least 98% of the UK’s annual butter imports originate from the EU.
Ash Amirahmadi, vice chairman of Dairy UK, said: “One thing we can all agree on is that trade policy is key to the success of the sector going forward.
“We stand ready to work with our colleagues in Government to ensure the voice of both dairy and agriculture is reflected in trade and tariff discussions.”
But speculation about a no-deal Brexit is not just threatening to affect imports.
The UK currently exports around 335,000 tonnes of pork a year to the UK, with just over half of that to the EU market – although the balance is expected to tip in favour of the non-EU market within the next couple of years.
But still, the EU export market is worth around £200 million a year to the UK – a significant figure.
Tariffs of between 45p/kg and 150p/kg on exports into Europe would be likely to render trade unviable and create a significant challenge for UK pig producers – particularly because they lay open the potential for cheaper meat from outside the UK to be imported without such sanctions.
Ed Barker, senior policy adviser of the National Pig Association, said: “The detail we have is not particularly helpful. We have been told we are at the mercy of being undercut by global exporters.
“The real concern is the introduction of exporting countries to the UK for the first time. We don’t know fully what the outcome will be – but potentially losing the European export market is huge.
“Losing the European export market overnight would be a significant challenge, and would have a knock-on impact on producers and the way in which we can provide products like bacon and sausages.”
– Citrus fruits:
While not consumed in the same number as other perishables, some exotic fruits such as lemons can be found on UK shelves largely thanks to growers in Europe.
Yasemen Kaner-White, author of Lemon Compendium and lemon expert, said: “Spain is the largest exporter of lemons and citrus in general to the UK, so yes, a no-deal Brexit would undoubtedly result in prices going up.
“Wholesalers might have to start looking at other markets, such as Cyprus, Turkey and Greece, but there is a lot of uncertainty at the moment.
“Lemons can grow quite well in the UK, although not really on a mass scale, but people may find they want to start the process now.
“They are quite sensitive, though, so people will have to take care that it is not too warm, not too cold, and that the temperatures are right. General rule is keep your lemon tree in a pot, sheltered, outside in summer and bring it in in winter.
“I planted in pots some seeds a month ago, shoots have come through already, and I’m expecting to see some lemons on it by end of summer.
“It is luck and weather dependent, however.
“An alternative citrus fruit would be a kumquat, which does grow well in the colder climate.”