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How Brexit is already changing what we eat

New EU trade rules, coupled with Covid-19 trends, are changing British food habits and appetites.

 

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On a bland industrial estate in the Gloucestershire town of Yate, sandwiched between the Cotswolds and Bristol, lies a warehouse full of Britain.

Jars of Branston pickle, pots of Ambrosia rice pudding, bags of Bird’s instant custard, Oxo cubes, Sherbet Lemons, Werthers Originals, Simpkins travel sweets in bronze-coloured tins, Del Monte canned peaches, Heinz baked beans, Nik Naks, Frazzles, Walkers, Mini Cheddars, and every flavour of Fisherman’s Friend pack out shelves and line pallets stacked to the ceiling.

A mix of the best lunch box ever and the back of your grandparents’ kitchen cupboard, this wonderland is the main warehouse of a business called British Corner Shop. Started in 1999 by a woman at her kitchen table who would buy beloved British branded products from Tesco and send them out to homesick expats, the business was bought and expanded by Mark Callaghan, now its managing director, in 2004.

There is half a million pounds' worth of stock here – mainly traditional British food and drink products, which is shipped directly both to expats and the Anglo-curious, and to supermarkets and distributors across the world.

 

What are the new Brexit trade rules?

Brexit, however, has put a lump in the custard. European Union countries – mainly France, Italy, Germany and Spain – account for 40 per cent of British Corner Shop’s market. The moment the new trading arrangements with the EU kicked in on 1 January 2021, exports halted.

There was a Covid-19 issue too, when the ports suddenly closed in December 2020, but the extra paperwork required by the new trade deal meant thousands of parcels dispatched in December for Christmas were not “Brexit-ready” anyway.

“Even cheese and onion crisps are affected because they contain cheese powder”

They were sent back to the warehouse, going back and forth two or three times, as the company tried to navigate the complex new documentation and different rules of each EU member state. While Italy was blocking tea, for example, Spain was fine with it – but putting barriers up to chocolate. Yorkshire Tea and Cadbury Dairy Milk bars are both very popular products with customers.

“In three months, we incurred something like £350,000 worth of what we call Brexit costs,” says Callaghan, as he takes the New Statesman on a tour of the warehouse.

How is Brexit affecting British businesses?

New certification is required for food and drink products containing anything of animal origin, including, says Callaghan, milk, butter and honey. “So that’s biscuits, chocolates, or even cheese and onion crisps, because they contain a cheese powder,” he says. “We had to remove from sale all chocolate, any product that contained anything of animal origin – we weren’t able to sell those into the EU anymore.”

That reduced his range from 6,000 to 1,000 products overnight. In one corner of the warehouse, boxes pile up containing orders for individual customers: a 12-pack of Schweppes peppermint cordial; five tins of Heinz baked beans, a bottle of Sarson’s vinegar and 12-pack of Irn-Bru; a bulk box of pickled onion Space Raiders.

[See also: Boris Johnson’s uncooked Brexit sits rotting in the ports]

To keep his business in Europe alive, Callaghan is opening a new distribution centre in the Netherlands. To staff it, he has had to lay off 60 jobs in the UK.

“It’s the only thing we can do,” he says. “It was 40 per cent of the business we’d lost due to Brexit. A huge impact.”

The flipside has been a rise in sales to North America, and opportunities for expanding markets in Australia, Japan and Singapore.

“We kind of diss ourselves a bit where we think that British food isn’t particularly good, but it’s actually pretty good when you put it on the world stage. For our non-expat customers, the processes we have in the UK to make sure we produce quality food are quite renowned.”

***

How is Brexit impacting fishermen and farmers?

British food and drink is struggling to make it into Europe. In January, exports to the EU were down 75 per cent, and still down 41 per cent in February. That’s “a huge volume of lost business – pretty devastating”, according to Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation.

Oystermen and mussel farmers have watched their European markets diminish, as the UK-EU trade deal introduced new rules for exporting live shellfish. Seed potato farmers were left out of the deal. Some food products, including the iconic Marks & Spencer Percy Pigs, have already been caught out by the new Irish sea border on their way to Northern Ireland, and chilled meat products like British sausages, mince and chicken nuggets could suffer the same fate when the newly extended grace period comes to an end on 30 September.

“Since 1 January last year, we have not sent a single pallet to Northern Ireland, which is astonishing,” says Vernon Mascarenhas, commercial director of catering grocer Nature’s Choice.

“The Northern Ireland issue has got to be resolved, it’s just madness”

Sending off his last deliveries of the morning to restaurants across London from New Covent Garden Market, surrounded by boxes of onions and crates of avocados, he tells us how the growers and farmers he works with used to send 70-100 pallets a week over to Northern Ireland – a market that completely halted at the beginning of the year.

So far, he has been able to find other buyers for the produce, having begun a home veg box scheme during lockdown. Otherwise it would have been “crop wasted”, he warns. “It’s got to be resolved, it’s just madness.”

[See also: The EU doesn’t understand the Irish border any better than the Brexiteers do]

“It’s an absolute nightmare for many businesses, and a considerable cost,” says John Whitehead, director of the Food and Drink Exporters Association. “If you’ve been supplying your cheddar cheese to [French supermarket] Carrefour in France, you’ve been doing it for years, and you don’t say to Carrefour, ‘Well, I’m sorry to ask but, because of Brexit, from 1 January your prices are going up by 10 per cent because of bureaucracy’ so they’re having to take all the costs on themselves.”

The implementation of equivalent rules for imports into Britain from EU countries was delayed by the UK government in March, and the rules are only expected to be implemented in full by next January. Until then, the full extent of Brexit’s impact on the food and drink we consume – and how much we pay for it – will be unknown. Yet imports of certain foods from the EU are already declining. There was a threat of a Haribo shortage in the UK at the beginning of July, when the German sweet giant behind Tangfastics and Starmix said it was struggling with a shortage of lorry drivers. In part, this is down to the pandemic disrupting processes like HGV driving tests, but the 60,000 driver shortage is also due to eastern European hauliers who travelled home during the pandemic struggling to return to work in the UK post-Brexit.

***

New trading rules with Europe crashed on to a geopolitical scene already in chaos during the pandemic. On 1 January 2021, the second wave of coronavirus was growing rapidly in the UK. For many in the food and drink industry, it is impossible to detangle the two market shocks.

At London’s oldest smokehouse, Walter Purkis & Sons, fishmonger John Purkis has noticed a shift in his customers’ appetites.

“People obviously couldn’t go to restaurants, so they have been using more local shops and cooking themselves, which is a big thing,” he says, shovelling oak dust from a barrel into the bottom of the smoker converted from an old stable at the back of his shop in Crouch End, north London. Racks of Scottish salmon and Norwegian herring hang above the smoke.

[See also: Brexit's cod wars are far from over]

“We have noticed an upsurge in the more expensive fish, we’ve been selling a lot of it – caviar and things like that.”

This is not only a result of lockdown. Purkis has been in the family business, which goes back to the mid-1850s, since the age of 14, and has noticed global trends changing tastes. With the rise of package holidays and budget flights in the early 1990s, for example, Brits developed an appetite for a different kind of seafood.

“We’ve been selling a lot more caviar”

Traditional chippy fare, like cod and haddock, made way for squid (which used to be considered “exotic”) and monkfish (which “they used to just sling back in the sea, now it’s a popular, expensive fish”), while the shellfish once found on stalls outside pubs – cockles and winkles – was replaced by the mussels and clams that people enjoyed in dishes on the continent.

“People went abroad, they tasted different things, they thought ‘oh, I really like that’,” Purkis recalls. “Thirty or 40 years ago, we’d have sold what you'd call traditional fish – cod, haddock, plaice, lots of shellfish – but that's changed over a period of time, as tastes have changed massively.”

While he believes it is too early to tell whether Brexit could trigger a similar shift in tastes, he welcomes what he sees as a rise in shopping for quality, seasonal produce in specialist shops like his.

Is Brexit making food prices more expensive?

Seafood export disruption could exacerbate the existing drive to get Brits interested in what wriggles around in the Britain’s own waters. After all, we export much of the fish we catch (langoustine, herring, crab) and import much of the fish we eat (cod, tuna, prawns, haddock). While the UK is a major producer of fish and seafood (exporting between 60 and 80 per cent of its catch), it is also a net importer – because of different consumer tastes.

In February, megrim sole and spider crab (two of British fishermen’s biggest exports to Europe) were rebranded “Cornish sole” and “Cornish king crab” by the Cornish Fish Producers Organisation in an attempt to appeal more to Brits. In 2003, Cornish fishermen had great success in appealing to EU markets after renaming their pilchards “Cornish sardines”.

***

At New Covent Garden Market, Vernon Mascarenhas believes Brexit and Covid-19 have forced Brits to eat more seasonally. This is because the cost of importing fruit and veg from Europe has shot up – with everything taking an average two extra days to reach his market site because of supply chain delays caused by Brexit.

“Ratatouille with peppers, tomatoes, onions, etc – I’ve always said: why are you having ratatouille in January? We have lovely fresh British produce, but it takes getting people to change their mindset and start to use more local, seasonal ingredients, which has happened.”

Now, “a restaurant can’t afford [the imported] peppers – every extra hour on the lorry equates to extra fuel, extra wages, and a box that cost £5 has gone up to £12, and by the time you get it onto a menu, it’s unaffordable,” he explains.

“The country has suddenly fallen in love with kale again”

It is therefore more tempting for restaurants to serve produce grown in the UK. This has driven changes in chefs’ recipes and customers’ appetites, including a taste for hotter chillies and unusually fiery padron peppers (spicier when picked fresh), kale (once a “nose-turned-up-to” vegetable), “heritage” carrots (the multi-coloured ones), and “what used to be called the ugly veg” (salt-baked celeriac and golden beetroot carpaccio, for example).

[See also: Brexit’s damage to business is no blip, new data shows]

Nature’s Choice was also the first to grow kalettes, after renting more farmland in the wake of the EU referendum result to produce more home-grown veg. Now, kalettes are a trendy restaurant food – used recently by a top chef in an episode of Great British Menu.

“With some of the media chefs, all of a sudden you see kale on the telly, you see kale in restaurants like Ottolenghi, like the Gavroche – who would ever have thought you could make kale crisps?” Mascarenhas asks. “The country has suddenly fallen in love with kale again. It was treated as the naughty veg before, but now, I can’t grow enough of it.”

***

Will Brexit make food quality worse?

Yet this green and pleasant view of post-Brexit Britain is more about business resilience than an idyllic, self-sufficient way of life. Farmers fear that the recent trade deal with Australia, and future prospective trade deals with the US and others, will prioritise cheaper imported meat over British produce farmed to higher standards.

“The fight-out is going to be about food standards,” says Timothy Lang, emeritus professor of food policy at City University, who warned early on in the Brexit debate of the prospect of chlorinated chicken and hormone-fed beef.

Reassurances from ministers about ramping up British exports around the world and the hype about eating locally is just “spin”, according to Lang, who derides “Liz Truss speaking about ‘global Britain’ – what the hell does that mean? It’s pathetic, and no strategic answer to where we are”.

“The fight-out is going to be about food standards”

While Lang believes it is too early to measure post-Brexit “culinary, gustatory or consumer trends”, he warns that the “big impact waiting to happen is prices”, as British food and drink businesses struggle to export and come up against foreign competition.

Already, the dual impact of Brexit and Covid-19 restrictions on food and the hospitality industry have made meat and fish more expensive. “A major, major change is that restaurants can no longer afford the protein content of the dish because it’s so expensive,” says Mascarenhas, who supplies around 400 restaurants.

[See also: What the New Statesman team were stockpiling ahead of a no deal Brexit]

“Even the cheap fish or the cheap cuts of meat are still relatively very expensive.” On average, he estimates the protein content of restaurant meals has been reduced from 200g to 120g because of this trend, which has in turn bumped up the veg elements of each dish.

“The assumption that we have this rich, neo-imperialist food culture still rules: it’s a complacency that ‘someone else will always feed us – we’re rich, we can buy on the world market’,” says Lang. “We haven’t seen the impact yet, but the auguries are not good for hunger, food prices, and diet-related ill health.”

***

Back at British Corner Shop, the pickers and packers put huge boxes of products together for customers missing a taste of Britain. “It’s a connection to home, it’s the products they were brought up with, it’s their comfort food,” says Mark Callaghan, who talks with pride about what Britain has to offer the world – his favourite best-seller being a Warburton crumpet slathered in “proper English butter”.

Yet he believes businesses like his have lost more than just exports. “I believed in the EU,” he says. “I believed in everything it stood for – that free market, that free movement of people. So for me, I struggle to see any positives.”

With Northern Ireland struggling to stock produce from Great Britain, new rules on European imports delayed, and more controversial trade deals down the line, British food culture remains in limbo. Fixing that will take more than a bumper crop of kalettes.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

She co-hosts the New Statesman podcast, discussing the latest in UK politics.

Phil Clarke-Hill is the New Statesman's video producer.