October 23, 2019

Will Brexit leave us with empty supermarket shelves?

Brexit

Last week, ministers were forced to publish a five-page document spelling out the government’s “planning assumptions” under Operation Yellowhammer – the government’s no-deal plan. Since then, retailers and trade associations, such as John Lewis, Co-Op and the Wine and Spirit Trade Association have all warned against food and drink shortages in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Operation Yellowhammer stated that freight delays could mean supplies of “certain types of fresh food” would be reduced, with some prices rising, which could particularly affect vulnerable groups. Others have also warned that because of the time of year Brexit will fall, there will be issues with storing fresh food as many retailers are already increasing their stock levels ahead of Christmas 2019.

Because of this uncertainty, Ubamarket has conducted nationally representative research across a sample of over 2,000 UK adults reveals how Brits feel Brexit is going to affect food prices on their weekly shop:

  • 30m Brits – 59% – believe that Brexit will increase the price of food and produce in supermarkets
  • 57% of Brits – 29.5m – believe that Brexit will make European goods in supermarkets considerably more expensive 

There is a concern amongst many UK shoppers regarding the prices and availability of products, with many retailers worrying that businesses will turn to supermarkets as they arguably have the most sophisticated supply logistics. In previous weather-related hold-ups or port blockades, many smaller traders going to where the last stocks can be found. 

What will our shelves look like after Brexit?

Because of the impending urgency to act as Brexit is a mere six weeks away, Ubamarket has compiled a list of all the food and drink products that may be affected by a no-deal Brexit which retailers and consumers may want to consider buying ahead of the 31st October. 

Salad

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. Britain imports more than £400m of fresh tomatoes every year. Many of them come from the Netherlands’ super-efficient greenhouses, which produce more tomatoes per square mile than any other country.

Dairy

Mozzarella, brie, feta, halloumi and hundreds of other European cheeses may have become staples in British stores, but it’s Irish cheddar that is the top import into the UK. More than £240m of Irish cheese comes into the UK each year. In 2015, 101,634 tonnes of cheddar cheese was 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.

Pork 

Danish bacon exports may be in decline, but Denmark is still the top exporter of bacon and ham to the UK, closely followed by the Netherlands, Germany and Italy. The UK currently exports around 335,000 tonnes of pork a year, with just over half of that to the EU market. The EU export market is worth around £200m 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.

Citrus fruits

Some exotic fruits such as lemons can be found on UK shelves largely thanks to growers in Europe. Spain is the largest exporter of lemons and citrus in general so wholesalers might have to start looking at other markets, such as Cyprus, Turkey and Greece in a no-deal Brexit situation.

Wine

Wine is the UK’s most valuable food import, totalling more than £2bn a year. In principle, this could be replaced by increased imports from other countries, such as Australia and Chile, but popular beverages such as champagne, prosecco and cava would be affected in a no-deal Brexit. 

Chips

Frozen potato products, such as chips, are the largest category of UK potato imports, with 99% coming from the EU, particularly the Netherlands and Belgium.

Lamb meat

The EU is the biggest market for thousands of British food exporters. One particularly vulnerable product is British lamb, 98% of which is exported to the EU. It would be hit with 40% tariffs without a trade deal.

The Scottish Government said on its website that fresh produce is likely to be the most affected by a no-deal Brexit. It says “there may be less choice for a while, however. Fresh foods with a short life – like vegetables and fruit – will be affected most, especially if they are not ‘in season’ in the UK in October. This means most fruit and vegetables will come into the UK from other countries. As we move into spring and summer, the UK will be able to grow more of its own fruit and vegetables and these shortages should stop. Any food coming into the UK from outside of Europe shouldn’t be affected by Brexit. It may take a little while longer to get into the country because of delays at ports, but there will be no change other than that.” 

Will Broome, CEO and Founder of Ubamarket, said: “A no-deal Brexit, in and of itself, is not the issue with food at this moment, but the uncertainty around a deal, tariffs, imports and exports and checks at borders. Roger Burnley, Head of Asda, said a hard Brexit could leave food rotting at borders, and this would mainly be down to an overnight shift in frictionless checks to rigorous screening and documentation signing. Food supply chains are deep and complex, and retailers are working very hard at ensuring that food, particularly fresh food, is not in short supply after Brexit. However, there may be some short term pain while checks at ports are sped up and no-deal Brexit issues are ironed out. 

“For consumers, the threat of a no-deal may be worrying and some may be tempted to begin stockpiling. However, for goods that can be stockpiled, these are unlikely to be affected. However, fresh produce such as meat and cheese may be in short supply in the short term immediately after 31st October. Obtaining your favourite beverages, while they may be more expensive if tariffs are placed on them, will still be available after Brexit.

For retailers, there are obviously concerns from all sides, and as an industry, we need to ensure that customers are fully informed and aware of any potential delays and shortages. It is clear that there are supply chain concerns from the industry and retailers are working to try and alleviate any potential issues, however, they need greater assurances from politicians in both the UK and in Europe. I would urge all parties to come together to try and sort out a workable solution for everyone to ensure that food shortages are kept to a minimum across the winter period and as UK supply builds up as we approach summer 2020.”