One of Britain’s biggest food suppliers to pubs, prisons and royal palaces has held talks with customers over switching to vegetarian dishes to avoid meat shortages that could be triggered by a no-deal Brexit.
Bidfood UK, which is the sole provider of food served in prisons and also supplies schools, hospitals and care homes, has approached customers about changing their menu choices as part of contingency plans for border delays.
With six months until the UK leaves the EU, growing numbers of companies are preparing for a no-deal Brexit against a backdrop of political turmoil and an impasse between London and Brussels.
Firms fear that a collapse in the value of the pound could push up costs, that they could face a shortage of EU workers and that delays at British ports could hold up deliveries.
Andrew Selley, chief executive of Bidfood UK, said the company had lined up additional warehouse space to stockpile food and drink and had discussed cutting down on meat options to avoid potential shortages.
“We’re looking at where we could switch to different products that are UK sourced. In a partnership approach with customers, [we’re] working on menu development, to say: ‘this product may not be available’.”
“A lot of meat products like chicken in the UK come from Holland and Poland, so, could you look at more non-meat dishes, vegan or vegetarian options?” he said.
The prospect of meat shortages caused by a hard Brexit is reminiscent of Britain during the second world war, when the government encouraged families to bake vegetable Woolton pies as other meals became harder to prepare. About half of all food consumed in the UK last year came from abroad, with almost a third arriving from the EU.
Bidfood uses about 1,000 trucks to make more than 12,000 deliveries from 24 depots across the country each week. Two-thirds of its 15,000 food items are domestically sourced, but Selley said a hard Brexit risked shortages of EU products including chips imported from Belgium, pasta and olive oil from Italy and meat from eastern Europe.
Unless there is clarity over the political situation before Christmas, Selley said the company would be forced to order extra supplies before Britain exits the EU on 29 March. He said: “We’d need safety stocks in for some of those items, if we felt it was going to be a hard Brexit and we felt those border delays would happen.”
According to a survey this week by the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply, whose members have to navigate import and customs procedures, as many as one in 10 UK firms fear bankruptcy in the event of a no-deal Brexit if it results in even relatively short port delays of up to half an hour. Deliveries of perishables such as food, drink and flowers would be most at risk because they could deteriorate while delayed in transit. A quarter of firms plan to stockpile supplies.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “You’ll have food going off in the back of trucks. The drivers themselves are stuck and they’ll be out of position. How do they get back? They’ll need overtime pay. There’s all sorts of implications… [including] a significant rise to the cost of food.”
Dismissing criticism from Brexiters that the warnings over a no-deal are akin to a new millennium bug mania, he said: “I’m not scaremongering here, I’m saying it’s a scary prospect because these are scary thoughts. You read the technical notices [from the government] and they make you blanch.”
HM Revenue and Customs has written to 145,000 firms who only trade with the EU to advise them of the risks of a no-deal Brexit. A spokesman said that its border staff had “well developed plans to ensure that on day one of a no-deal scenario there will be a functioning customs, VAT and excise system”.
Businesses up and down the country are however starting to prepare for the very worst outcome, saying they have little choice.
The fashion chain Next this week warned border delays could lead to higher prices in its shops and devoted 10 pages of a stock exchange update to explain its contingency plans. BMW plans to shut its Mini plant in Oxford for a month after the UK leaves next March, while Jaguar Land Rover has cut staff working hours. Honda has said a no-deal Brexit could add 60,000 extra pieces of paperwork for imports and exports to the UK while costing the firm tens of millions of pounds.
Studies show small firms are less likely to have made preparations as “Brexit fatigue” sets in, although some are gearing-up for a no-deal scenario.
Mark Bradley, who runs Digital Image Solutions, a printing business with an annual turnover of £2.5m, said he would stockpile raw materials at the firm’s Wolverhampton warehouse. The firm, which makes giant posters for Manchester City and branding for Virgin Active gyms, needs to protect against a sudden increase in the price of aluminium sheets, vinyl and LED lights from German and Irish suppliers.
“We will increase stock, there’s no two ways about that. It just depends on how the negotiations go and the news in the next quarter as to how much we tie up in it,” he said.