A stroll through Borough Market is like a stroll through a European food fair. Olives from Puglia; cheeses from Calabria, Piedmont and Burgundy; and Parma ham from Parma. Flavours and aromas from Italian and French dishes mix with Turkish and Austrian ones.
Traders at the market can afford to sell such a wild array of foods from across the continent because the EU’s policy around free movement of goods means that import is often no more expensive than the cost of the petrol it takes to go get it. The lack of import taxation means that restaurants, big and small, can get the produce they want for a good price.
So, of course, with Brexit incoming, there may be serious disruption to this way of working.
Higher costs and a more complex (or, in short-term, poorly defined) bureaucracy will make it more difficult to bring produce into the country.
And these imports are the lifeblood of many businesses in Britain: the UK only makes about half of the food it eats (or chucks away), and 50% of what we imports comes from the EU, according to government figures.
The result is going to be disruption and higher prices. But how businesses in the food and drinks sector deal with these problems is uncertain.
Taxes and traffic jams
Larger companies like McDonald’s, KFC and Pret A Manger, have said that they are stockpiling food for the period after Brexit.
But such storage space is limited doesn’t solve the problem of importing fresh produce: according to the Produce Marketing Association, the UK imports 85% of its vegetables from the EU. British farmers alone won’t be able to keep up with demand, and so there will still be tremendous demand
For all the food that cannot be stockpiled prior to Brexit, a new trading infrastructure is going to drive up costs. Businesses will need to work with an import agent, and make sure they are tax compliant. New risks will need accounting for, like the possibility of transport delays and spoilage.
A recent study by researchers at Imperial College London found that the two extra minutes spent checking each vehicle coming into the UK from the EU after Brexit could triple the traffic on the M20/A20, and create traffic jams of up to 29 miles.
While warehousing will minimise costs in the short term, it’s only an option for the larger businesses that can afford to hire storage space.
Smaller businesses – minor chains and independent pubs and restaurants – may only be able to pass the price hikes on to consumers: not ideal, given that, at the same time, consumer confidence is likely to drop and people will not want to eat out as often.
Besides pubs and restaurants, those businesses whose model is based around knowing the little farms around Europe will find their margins cut when import duties are applied to every product and invoice.
Dish of the day
To try and avoid these expenses, businesses may instead seek local providers – but these may end up being more expensive than import options. The alternative is that maybe more rarefied, restaurants will exchange experimental menus for old standards and proven favourites: menus that are guaranteed to sell well and for which there will be a secure supply line.
This may fall in line with consumer habits. Uncertainty over Brexit may make consumers reconsider anything that could be considered exotic or specialist ingredients as dispensable luxuries.
To this, it’s worth adding uncertainty as a major problem facing businesses. It’s less than two months before Britain is supposed to leave without a deal – the deadline set by Boris Johnson during the Tory leadership campaign – and little has been established about what is to follow.
In such conditions, it is impossible for anyone to plan the new systems you’re going to need to tackle these problems.
Extra red-tape around imports is going to make bringing produce into Britain more expensive. Those hardest hit will be the smaller specialists and diners – and we could end up seeing more limited, familiar menus on the high street. Businesses are attempting to stockpile in order to weather the storm – but a long-term political solution is needed if we hope to enjoy the same foody diversity we enjoy today.
Jack Flanagan is a writer living between Berlin and London. He writes about a range of subjects, from science to hospitality. His work has appeared in The Guardian, New Scientist and the American periodical, History magazine, among others. Jack was born in the Highlands, Scotland. He is an aquarist, and often writes about keeping aquariums.
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