The UK is facing labour shortages and disrupted food supplies after Brexit, but the fast-food giant is well prepared for the worst. By David Burrows.
The British Retail Consortium has warned that food supplies could dry up if Brexit results in more complex border controls. Choice and availability are at risk without additional agreements and investment to supplement a customs deal, the BRC said, and prices could go up (by 22% in some cases).
The Sainsbury’s CEO, Mike Coupe, waded into the debate this week, warning that strict controls could leave food rotting at the borders. Westminster does “not fully recognise” the repercussions of supply chain disruption, he reportedly said.
Retailers aren’t the only ones staring at a half-empty glass as talk of a hard Brexit persists. The Food and Drink Federation has just revealed that a considerable skills gap is looming. “It is only a matter of time before the uncertainty reported by businesses [in a survey spanning the entire food and drink chain] results in an irreversible exit of EU workers from these shores. Without our dedicated and valued workforce we would be unable to feed the nation,” said the FDF director general, Ian Wright.
Closing the door on free trade with Europe was always going to open the floodgates to the doomsayers, and the food industry is rightly concerned by its proximity to the cliff edge. In August the UK said it was aiming for an interim customs union, an idea that was laughed off as pure “fantasy” by the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt.
The glass-half-full view is that leaving the EU could boost Britain’s self-sufficiency in food and encourage more firms to source from home. That’s what producers are hoping for, anyway. “What we should be doing is maximising on the food production we are good at, and looking at the potential for this,” said the National Farmers Union president, Meurig Raymond, recently.
While the NFU isn’t advocating a fully self-sufficient nation, buying in foods that can be grown here does seem outdated and risky,especially given the vagaries of climate change and the prime minister’s desire to do trade deals with any Tom, Dick or Donald.
Footprint has already raised concerns that cheaper chicken from the US could prove too tempting for foodservice businesses, regardless of whether it’s been washed in chlorine or not. The horsemeat scandal showed that food businesses can’t resist a deal, even if it’s too good to be true; and some have been left with egg on their faces thanks to the current situation involving fipronil.
“For those who purchased the imported egg products, why were they not buying local?” asked Prof Chris Elliott, the director of the institute for global food security at Queen’s University Belfast, in his latest blog for the Grocer. “The only rational explanation is price, so consumers must be willing to pay a little more for home grown, and retail and foodservice must support this.”
McDonald’s has made no secret of its desire to buy locally: it has committed to use only British potatoes for its French fries, sources only 100% British and Irish beef (though there are issues with the soy used in the feed given to cattle) and even launched a campaign using virtual reality and 360° video to “tell its UK food story through the eyes of the people who grow, produce and prepare food for its UK menu”.
According to Connor McVeigh, the firm’s supply chain director, customers “told us that buying local is really important to them. Many retailers share that line but for us it’s genuinely the case,” he told Footprint. And that means the nightmare scenarios being drawn up by the likes of the BRC are not keeping him awake at night. “It’s not a concern we have within McDonald’s,” he said.
McDonald’s spends £1 billion a year in its supply chain and 60% is with British farmers, which “puts us in a strong position”, McVeigh said. “I think there will be more we will look to do.”
But however cosy the company insists it is with its UK producers, pushing past the 60% mark won’t be easy. Labour shortages could be a big problem, for example – just 14 of 13,400 seasonal fruit and veg workers recruited between January and May this year were British. McDonald’s has released figures from a survey conducted by the National Farm Research Unit showing that recruitment is the top priority. One in five respondents expected to recruit people from non-agricultural backgrounds in the next five years.
Come 2022, will food companies be buying more food from sustainable sources in the UK, or will self-sufficiency have dropped even further as Britain scours the world for new trade partners promising cheap food?
The UK currently produces 61% of the food it uses, so some might say there is certainly room for improvement. But is there? Plenty of evidence suggests land use has to be rethought, but it will open a can of worms that policymakers have long kept locked up in the larder.
As a group of food policy experts put it in their recent paper, “A Food Brexit: Time to Get Real”, the “default line” for policymakers has been “as long as the British are fed, it does not matter to the government whence or how”. This is shortsighted, they said, before demanding a national debate about food sourcing, deeper exploration of public attitudes towards British food and a “thorough understanding” of the full cost implications of rising EU tariffs on food imports and exports after any Brexit deal.
“UK food security and sustainability are now at stake,” explained Tim Lang, a professor of food policy at City University London and one of the authors. “A food system which has an estimated three to five days of stocks cannot just walk away from the EU, which provides us with 31% of our food. Anyone who thinks that this will be simple is ill-informed.”