Brexit: UK food industry asks for rule waiver to tackle food shortages after no deal

Brexit: UK food industry asks for rule waiver to tackle food shortages after no deal

Business News

The UK government is yet to respond to a request by the food industry to waive parts of competition law so companies can cooperate after a no-deal Brexit to mitigate food shortages.

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), representing food and drink manufacturers, has asked for “cast-iron” reassurance that firms would be allowed to work together “to tackle likely shortages – to decide where to prioritise shipments”, FDF chief operating officer Tim Rycroft said in a statement. Competition law prohibits such cooperation. 

“We asked for these reassurances at the end of last year and, despite support from Defra, we’re still waiting,” Mr Rycroft said.

Speaking to BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday, he said shortages would affect “random” products, depending on “which trucks get through”, and that supplies would be disrupted for weeks or months after the Brexit date. 

Lord Haskins, former chair of Northern Foods, agreed food shortages are likely if Britain crashes out of the EU, and warned of potential panic-buying which would exacerbate them.

“The government thinks that food will flow normally as before. I have my doubts,” he told BBC Radio 4. He added that in such a scenario supplies shouldn’t be directed just to supermarkets as a priority but to schools and hospitals as well. 

“We could be in a sort of wartime situation of a limited amount of food rationing… I don’t think we’ll get to that but I’m very concerned about the groups who aren’t in the supermarket chain, how they will deal with things. We have to prioritise – who can prioritise except the government itself?”

According to Mr Rycroft, the current timing of Brexit on 31 October would deepen food supply problems because warehouses are full in the run-up to Christmas, limiting stockpiling. On top of that, domestic crops come to an end around October, increasing the need for imported fruit and vegetables. “It is pretty much the worst time [for no-deal exit],” he said.

If the waiver is granted allowing food producers to manage supply disruptions as a group, it will not do anything to stem rises in food prices. According to the FDF, prices will “inevitably” increase because trading under WTO rules will be more expensive and firms will also pass on to consumers the costs of preparing for a no-deal Brexit.  

The comments add to earlier warnings that a chaotic departure from the EU would lead to food shortages and higher prices. 

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, said last week food imports would be disrupted if Britain’s ports are not ready in time to handle a sudden surge in customs checks. He added that a no-deal Brexit would slash the value of the pound, immediately raising food prices. 

And on Monday Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, warned that the UK’s food supply faces levels of disruption “unprecedented” in peacetime. The public has so far been kept “largely in the dark” about the government’s view on the gravity of the situation that could unfold, he wrote in The Lancet.

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