Food retailers in Britain warned lawmakers this week that Brexit was threatening to become a dinner plate issue. A departure from the European Union with no agreement in place would be costly and limit supplies, executives said in a public letter. They added: “We fear significant disruption in the short term.”
In other words: We’ve run out of patience and we could be short on food.
“We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no deal Brexit,” said the letter, signed by executives from supermarket chains like Walmart-owned Asda, and even fast-food outlets like McDonald’s.
Here is how food and Britain’s food chain could be affected.
Wilted lettuce, moldy strawberries
Nearly a third of food consumed in Britain comes from the European Union, and much of it crosses the border effortlessly. The chaos created by the country crashing out could lead to a lot of salad stuck in traffic jams and extra customs checks after March 29, when Britain exits the bloc.
Some 90 percent of lettuce, 80 percent of tomatoes and 70 percent of strawberries and blueberries in Britain comes from the European Union at that time of year. It cannot be stockpiled — and even if it could, storage space is running out.
Retailers typically store no more than two weeks’ inventory, according to their letter. “For consumers, this will reduce the availability and shelf life of many products in our stores.”
The cost of food could rise significantly as tariffs push up the price of imports, the retailers said. Britain currently pays tariffs on about 10 percent of its imported food.
In the event of a no-deal Brexit, it is possible that the British government may try to ease the rise in food prices by lowering tariffs on products from the European Union that are not grown in Britain. Citrus fruits, like oranges, would be candidates. This would limit some of the pressure on prices, said Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former trade negotiator at the World Trade Organization.
But there are 60 days left before Britain leaves the European Union — and no decision on those products has been made.
A hard sell for farmers
Tariffs imposed by the European Union would hit British farmers who rely on exports for their livelihood.
For example, lamb from the United Kingdom is now sold in the European Union with no tariff. In the event of no-deal Brexit, the purchase price of a British lamb by buyers in Europe could increase by as much as 45 percent because of new tariffs.
There is a quota system in place for sellers not in the bloc — a certain amount of food shipped into the European Union is free of tariffs. But qualifying for that portion is very competitive. Smaller operations, in particular, could find the paperwork challenging.
So farmers who sell mostly to the European Union would have to look for new markets — in countries with free trade agreements — and customers outside the European Union.
But this also would require meeting unfamiliar health standards and learning to work in a new market, as well as competing with more established competitors. A farmer selling lamb, for example, “would be trying to enter third markets where Australia, New Zealand, Argentina and others have been active for a long time and probably have the market pretty well cornered,” Mr. Grozoubinski explained.
A land of (inspected) milk and honey?
Poultry, products like milk and yogurt, and even honey could be delayed on their way in and out of the country by a number of new inspections.
Document checks: all animal products will be subject to them as they enter Europe.
Physical checks: staff at border inspection posts will take samples and check that products are safe for consumption. These checks will be applied to as much as half of these products.
As a result, bottlenecks are predicted. Countries like France and the Netherlands are expanding the infrastructure, like inspection posts, necessary to conduct these checks. On the British side, the government a few weeks ago created an artificial traffic jam for trucks as part of its Brexit preparation. The effort was widely ridiculed.
The squeeze may be felt acutely at the Irish border. Farmers in Northern Ireland send their fresh milk south to be pasteurized in the Republic of Ireland. “The reason they share this production across the border is for economy of scale,” said Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast.
But those economies may be lost if an exit without an agreement leads to a hard border of some sort. “That entails physical infrastructure and an economic burden for the producer,” Dr. Hayward said. “There’s no facility for that at the moment.”
Prime Minister Theresa May wants to reopen negotiations with European leaders this week over the so-called Irish backstop plan, a policy to keep goods flowing across the Irish border. They have already said that issue is not open to debate.
A costly trip to the grocer
Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, has told lawmakers that food prices could rise from 5 to 10 percent in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The British Retail Consortium estimates about a fifth of all cheese in supermarkets is imported from the European Union — and consumers will be paying more for the extra paperwork and inspections needed to get these types of products into the country.
The retailers in their letter warned that there would be “inevitable pressure on food prices from higher transport costs, currency devaluation and tariffs.”