‘Stark choice’ for UK on food imports

Government must choose between protecting consumers or farmers in event of no-deal Brexit, says former Waitrose boss
‘Stark choice’ for UK on food imports

A former managing director of upmarket British supermarket chain Waitrose has told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that a no-deal Brexit would leave the UK government with a stark choice when it comes to fresh food: shield consumers from price rises, or protect the country’s farmers from tariff-free imports.

Commenting on a possible switch to WTO rules, the current chairman of Fair Trade UK said the UK would need to decide if implementing an average 20 per cent tariff as is required under those rules would be worthwhile. “That would clearly not be good for the consumer but it would protect our farmers,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, the government might choose to do remove tariffs. “Then they would have to apply no tariffs to the whole world,” he pointed out. “If they do that, then clearly UK farmers are going to come under pressure from goods coming in which are less expensive but still having to have tariffs applied to their exports.”

The choice was a tough one, he concluded: “The difficult choice for the government is going to be, do we look after the consumer, or do we look after the farmer? And they’re tough things to square.”

Price was responding to comments made on the previous day’s programme by food policy expert Professor Tim Lang, who said the public must be kept informed of how a no-deal Brexit would affect food supply.

“I understand Defra not wanting to encourage panic, but the point is that unless the government comes clean with about what it expects, they will panic,” he warned.

“At the moment there is no planning for the public to be informed, and yet people on low incomes will be affected. The critical issue is that fresh food supplies will be affected. How on earth can the public prepare to have fresh fruit and vegetables when the supplies get disrupted?”

Careful steps

Price, who until September 2017 was Minister of State for Trade, said he felt that publishing guidance now would be a challenge, but accepted that the government would need to “say something” before 31 October, the planned date for leaving the EU.

With fresh food supply chains into the UK supermarket network extremely short and time sensitive, panic buying itself presented a bigger threat, he suggested.

“The supermarkets will have done a lot of work preparing to keep fresh food on their shelves, looking to bring in more from the Southern Hemisphere, working with their suppliers to make sure there is continuity of supply. The great danger is that people do [panic], and supermarkets cannot plan for that.”

And despite the fact that leaving the EU as Europe’s winter approached would arguably give fresh fruit and vegetable buyers more time to adjust during a period when they take more fresh produce from the Southern Hemisphere, he also pointed out that non-EU sources were not able to provide sufficient volume of food to replace imports from the EU.

“About 30 per cent of the food we eat comes from the EU; about 20 per cent from the rest of the world; and 50 per cent is what we grow here,” he observed. “76 per cent of our veg comes from Europe, 40 per cent of our fruit comes from Europe. So it’s a huge proportion of what we have.”

In the meantime, Price added, moving away from EU food quality and safety standards could push up the cost of imports, assuming that more checks were carried out to enforce the UK’s own regulations.

“On day one they’re going to be the same, that’s fine. But over the course of time they’ll diverge and we’ve got to decide whether we’re going to have a different standard and whether we’re going to check.”