Why are food firms keeping quiet about an EU exit

Food firms have so far been cagey on EU exit, but for most businesses Britain is surely better in than out.

There are no prizes for guessing what issue will be at the axis of British political debate in 2016. Whether Britain should stay in the EU is one of those rare political questions that both generates strong public interest and has ramifications for each and every sector of UK plc.

Food is no exception – quite the opposite, in fact. Food is one of the industries whose future is most inextricably linked with Brexit or otherwise.

To date, those representing “Big Food” have kept their cards close to their chest, no doubt waiting for the details of David Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s EU membership. Yet, reading between the lines, it seems clear that Brexit would create huge uncertainty for UK food businesses and that, by and large, it’s a case of better the devil you know.

At the City University Food Policy Symposium, held just before Christmas,
a panel containing senior figures from the National Farmers Union and Food and Drink Federation refused to be drawn on whether their members would be throwing in their lot with the in or out campaigns. But it was instructive that both organisations focused on talking up the benefits of EU membership while mostly glossing over the negatives.

Speakers kept returning to a number of central themes. Immigration may be an emotive issue for the British public, but for the food industry it’s clear that sectors such as farming and foodservice would struggle to function effectively without access to migrant labour from the EU.

The EU’s role as a lawmaker was also spoken of in largely positive terms. An excess of EU “red tape” is often touted, particularly by the right-wing press, as a key reason to get out of Europe. Food is a popular device for highlighting unnecessary, burdensome and often plain stupid rules – who can forget the infamous bendy cucumber? Yet the reality is that the EU’s role as a food regulator is largely welcomed by the industry as it sets a level playing field

for competition within the trading bloc and is vital to delivering (although not guaranteeing) food safety, standards and integrity.

If anything the UK’s desire for tougher food laws is reined in by less developed member states, particularly in eastern Europe. Traffic light labelling, which the UK has pushed for on a voluntary basis after the EU vetoed it, is a case in point.

That said, however, there are issues that provoke largely negative feelings where the food industry’s relationship with Europe is concerned. The vast amounts of EU money spent on subsidising farming through the Common Agricultural Policy – a major part of the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget – is a constant source of frustration in Westminster where, regardless of politicians’ rhetoric, agriculture is not considered as important a sector as in some other EU member states.

An argument can be made that being part of a large trading bloc can divert trade from better, more efficient suppliers in non-EU markets. EU trade rules can also hinder populist attempts by national ministers to favour local produce in public procurement.

For some interest groups, such issues will be sufficiently persuasive to make Brexit an attractive option. But for the majority in the food industry who believe we are better together, now is the time to make their voices heard. If Britain votes to leave the EU, there will be no going back for second helpings.

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