What British Food and Drink Workers Really Think About Brexit

We asked farmers, chefs, restaurant critics, fishermen, and bakers how Britain’s decision to leave the EU will impact the country’s food industry.

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Jul 8 2016, 10:56am

Two weeks ago, Britain voted to leave the European Union, plunging the country into political and economic uncertainty, and spawning a whirlwind of shock resignations and impassioned Twitter rants.

In this post-Brexit world, no one really knows what's going to happen next. The food and drinks industry is no exception—almost three quarters of the UK's estimated £12.3 billion food and drink exports go to the EU and one in eight workers in sectors including food manufacturing and agriculture are European migrants.

READ MORE: Producers Are Worried About What Will Happen to EU Protected Foods Post-Brexit

Back in March, the Food and Drink Federation released a poll asking the 300 companies in its membership whether they believed it was in the best interests of their business for the UK to leave or remain in the EU. Of the 150 companies who responded, 71 percent said remaining would benefit their business, 17 percent opted "not to express a preference," and 12 percent chose "Leave."

While the exact terms of the UK's exit from the EU are yet to be negotiated, we asked farmers, chefs, restaurant critics, fishermen, and bakers from across the UK about how the referendum result will impact British food.

Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) "In March we released the results of a poll of our members which showed 70 percent support for Britain to remain in the EU. It's inevitable in the light of those results that the majority of FDF members will regard this as a disappointing result for the food and drink industry.

We'll focus on working with the Government to understand what this means for trading, market access, and regulation to secure the best outcome for British food and drink manufacturing businesses and their customers."

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Photo courtesy National Farmers Union.

Gareth Wyn Jones, sheep farmer in northwest Wales "My worry is that we export the majority of the Welsh small mountain lamb to places like France, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. All these European countries are big buyers of our meat. Now, if I was a sheep farmer in France, Italy or Spain, I wouldn't want to see lamb coming in from Great Britain. The reason being because we voted out of the open market. You can't blame them if they want to put tariffs on it. You can't blame them if they're going to give us loopholes to try and stop us from sending lamb over. It's a big worry.

But what's done is done. We live in a democracy. What we've got to work at now is selling some of the best produce which is Welsh lamb within Great Britain and try to get our supermarkets more involved in supplying British and Welsh. If we want a Great Britain again, I think it's got to start at the bottom with food and drink and smaller businesses."

Eating out will become even more expensive.

Sonia Blasco, Barcelona-based food tour operator "I live in Barcelona and run a tapas and wine tour here with trip4real [a company that pairs locals running tours and activities with tourists] that allows travellers to eat as locals in my city. We are very sad to hear of the news of Brexit but we are hoping that this will not affect food tourism in Barcelona as Spain has an amazing gastronomic scene that we love being able to share with travellers.

Although there may be some uncertainty for British people in the coming months, I will continue to offer my tour as an alternative, friendly way of seeing the city. I think that travellers from the UK will use peer-to-peer platforms all the more as a way of connecting with other Europeans."

Mark Douglas, baker from County Down "My thoughts at the moment are very much a case of it's all too soon to draw a clear opinion on how it will affect the food industry—never mind the UK in general. For me personally, I don't foresee any great change as I sell direct to the public at markets and events."

Meurig Raymond, president of the National Farmers Union "The vote to leave the European Union will inevitably lead to a period of uncertainty in a number of areas that are of vital importance to Britain's farmers. The NFU will engage fully and constructively with the British Government to construct new arrangements. This needs to happen as soon as possible.

Our members will rightly want to know the impact on their businesses as a matter of urgency. We understand that the negotiations will take some time to deliver but it is vital that there is early commitment to ensure British farming is not disadvantaged. It is vital that British farming is profitable and remains competitive, it is the bedrock of the food industry—Britain's largest manufacturing sector."

Suzanne Vallance, spokesperson for Perthshire-based chocolate producers Highland Chocolatier "The food and drink sector is one of the most important industries in the UK, so those of us in the industry are of course concerned about what the result means for us. What's more, confectionary volumes have been forecast to decline faster than any other packaged food sector.

We are, of course, in a state of flux at the moment, with uncertainty often being the times where anxiety is at its highest. One of the issues we are concerned about is the future of farming, as our products are crafted with locally sourced produce. Just yesterday, it was warned by farmers that the prices of produce will rise due to Brexit. The result will mean trading relationships will change as will the prices of our ingredients, packaging, and shipping fees to other countries."

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Photo courtesy National Farmers Union.

Adam Rawson, ex-head chef at London's Pachamama and supper club host "In London, I rely on international ingredients in my cooking and I'm worried about the knock-on effect on imported foods as I think the price of ingredients can go up if there's another tax we'll need to pay.

However, I think British farming will become stronger—which is great—but as a melting pot of multicultural cuisines, I do worry. Also, as many restaurants open, I think they'll get even harder to staff. Already I'd say 90 percent of workers in the hospitality industry come from outside of the UK. Eating out will become even more expensive as a result.

So, how will this affect London in years to come? I do believe that as a nation we will sort all these things out but only time will tell."

Richard Loose, Norfolk oyster farmer "I think it's too early to say too much about the impact of Brexit as everything seems to be up in the air just now. We don't yet know what the terms of our leaving will be.

Obviously the strength of our economy is the biggest factor for all industry, and will affect even a small food producer operating in a local market. I think it will be vital that the post-Brexit government supports our farmers and fishermen, and all the other associated food and drink producers."

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Photo courtesy Chuck Burger.

Basit Nasim, founder of London restaurants HotBox and Chuck Burger "The hospitality industry in London is a melting pot of cultures and demographics and the work ethic and experience that migrant workers bring is invaluable. These hard working, tax-paying people now feel like they are no longer welcome in the country they have made their home. You can already sense the fear and confusion as they wait to see if they will be given amnesty to stay or sent back to their own countries.

Although tourism may benefit from the weak pound, small businesses like ours will suffer with having to pay higher prices for imported goods. I'm struggling to think of a time where a decision has been so fundamentally negative for a country and small businesses like ours."

Rose McCullough, food PR professional based in Berlin "I moved to Berlin almost a year and a half ago, following four years at a food PR agency in London, to work as head of UK PR for recipe box company Marley Spoon. As a global brand operating with an international team, Brexit was an important discussion point in the company—particularly around what would happen to the UK employees and our UK market.

From my point of view, I am sad that a decision like this was made in the UK—luckily I had my say, but many friends here weren't able to vote. The vote will impact me, my UK colleagues, and friends a lot if we have to get visas to live and work here. I find it a terrible shame that younger generations won't have such freedom to "up sticks" and explore a new country like I did."

READ MORE: We Asked UK Farmers What Leaving the European Union Would Mean for British Food

Bob Lindo, founder of Camel Valley vineyard in Cornwall "I'm disappointed for the young people in our wine industry who enjoy freedom of movement to work in wineries around Europe. It looks likely that it will disappear. From my own point of view, I'm 67 and unlikely to go and work overseas but I still feel restricted in my freedoms. I think that people completely underestimated the contribution that Europe makes to our economy and life.

I also feel that the natural home of wine is Europe and we were a part of that. It was the context in which that our wine sat. We don't try and compete with sparkling wine from New Zealand, we're sitting alongside Champagne, for example. Contextually, I think it's put us in a less fair place."

Jay Rayner, restaurant critic "Some people are banging on about how we've become a cosmopolitan food nation as a result of European membership. I think that's a red herring. I think it would have happened anyway, regardless of being in or out. The massive issue is about the free movement of labour. I do not genuinely think we'll be able to get the harvest in in this country if we do not have access to the workforce from continental Europe.

I've gone into an awful lot of food production units—the places who make the food that we eat in our houses. The vast majority of workers tend to be bilingual with Polish on the floor because they cannot find enough British staff to staff them. The simple shortage of labour, the inability to get the harvest in is going to cause us massive problems.

All the evidence is that there isn't a supply of British labour from within Britain itself. It is an Eastern European workforce who has been doing this job for the past ten years. They have become the backbone of the agriculture industry and we now have a huge problem. What it will mean in an attempt to attract the labour, is pressure on price. There are lots of pressures on price globally and we have now just introduced another one."

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Photo courtesy Camel Valley vineyard.

Anthony Legge, butcher and owner of Legges of Bromyard deli in Herefordshire "As a business, we are very excited about leaving the EU. We feel that Brexit can only be beneficial to the business as Legges specialises in selling local food and drink. I have several members of staff from Eastern Europe and I am confident that the result will not affect their future employment with Legges.

It always seems crazy to me that Europe dictates so much to the running of this country. I am very much looking forward to carrying on doing what we are doing, specialising in sourcing locally. I am hugely positive about what the future holds."

Csaba, Manchester chef "I used to live in Hungary but I came over here to earn money for a better life. I love working in food and being creative with ingredients. I'm not too worried for my future as the company I work for are great and they've reassured us that nothing will happen about our jobs. No one knows yet whether the UK will actually leave the EU so it's hard to say what might happen to people who may want to come here to work in the future."

Pev Manners, owner of Belvoir Fruit Farms in Leicestershire "While most people who help with the elderflower harvest are from the local area, we do have groups of Eastern Europeans who come every year to help. Free movement of people is excellent in that sense. I'm not sure these guys would get a visa otherwise. Leaving the EU will have a marginal effect for us because a lot of pickers do come from around the area, rather than from abroad. However, we have a lot of Poles working for us. They're fantastic and work really hard. Brexit might have an adverse effect on that.

I hope and feel fairly confident that we can get to a position with the EU where there's a very strong trading relationship. If they have to put a tariff on, it'll be something small like 1 percent because it's in nobody's interest to have tariffs. I'd like to be in a common market, I just don't want to be in a European Union. The migrants who are currently working for me are quite frightened by what's going on that we're going to throw them out and there'll be more racism, but I've reassured everyone that they can stay. I'll fight for them because they're fantastic people who have made the effort to get here and they need to be supported and helped. They've made their homes here."

Mikey Harvey, brewery assistant in Bristol "I work for an independent brewery which is due to launch in August. We've already started selling out to distributors but now we have to re-look at our price list and it may potentially change. Our hops and malts are sourced from British companies, which offer local and foreign varieties. Leaving the EU will affect their prices, and in turn ours.

We will be buying a bottling line soon, but unfortunately we have had to downgrade the model we want because of the pound struggling against the Euro. We will have to compromise for a smaller, less efficient piece of equipment, that in the long run will increase our costs. These costs will trickle down to the consumer and affect everyone."

I do not genuinely think we'll be able to get the harvest in in this country if we do not have access to the workforce from continental Europe.

Claire Head, farmer at Cedar Organic in Dorset "I don't think in or out will really affect our business massively because everything was changing anyway: both EU and the UK are seeking to decrease subsidies which are still a large part of a farmer's income and we are already working hard to make these less important to us.

We're a 530 acre organic farm and sell our products direct locally or via a co-operative into the supermarkets, so while the EU exports don't impact us directly, the influence of the commodity price impacts us all as it influences what we are paid by the supermarkets.

One of the things that frustrates us is a difference in production standards—for example, imported bacon. Generally British conventional farmers use a third less antibiotics in their production than in a lot of European production, yet we're not allowed to say that ours is better than theirs, even though it's not the same product.

But trading might carry on just the same anyway, so we've just got to stick it out and see what happens. Overall I feel positive about the long term opportunities in the change as I think there is greater strength in British democracy."

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Photo courtesy National Farmers Union.

Shamil Thakrar, one of the founders of Indian restaurant Dishoom, with various locations in London "It's a tricky time, isn't it? There's a slightly sour tang in the air. We're hoping it's temporary and the natural good humour and openness of London will reassert itself quickly.

Our biggest immediate concern is for our team. We employ many people from the EU who have made London home. They saw London as safe and open, celebrating difference, welcoming. Many are upset and understandably uncertain. They feel unwelcome.

We're doing everything we can to help and reassure them that they are welcome. A few staff have even been taunted. This is utter crap—there is no space in our city for those who make people unwelcome because of race or nationality. The very point of London is how utterly mixed and diverse it is."

David Frost, chief executive of Scotch Whisky Association "The process of leaving the EU will inevitably generate significant uncertainty. Of course, we are confident Scotch whisky will remain the pre-eminent international spirit drink. But equally, there are serious issues to resolve in areas of major importance to our industry and which require urgent attention, notably the nature of future trade arrangements with both the single market and the wider world.

The government will now need to consult as it prepares its negotiating approach. We look forward to working closely with them on that."

Philip Crouch, owner of The Parma Ham and Mozzarella Stand at London's Borough Market "I've been trading here for eight or nine years. We're very concerned because there's a great amount of uncertainty. I have three Italian staff who are simply unclear about everything. For us at Borough, we have a very cosmopolitan customer base—a lot of people from continental Europe which is a concern for us. We import from six or seven small producers in Italy and we don't know what will happen. I'm sure it'll get resolved in the force of time but that's a concern.

There's a great sense of uncertainty and worry for us as a business that sells Italian food. No one is able to say what is going to happen."

Matthew O'Callaghan, chairman of the UK Protected Foods Names Association and Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association "A country does not have to be a member of the EU to have its products protected within the EU. Colombia is an example where though clearly not a member of the EU, its coffee Colombian Coffee has Protected Food Name (PFN) status within the EU. The arrangement has to be reciprocal.

It is my understanding that our products having been approved by the EU will continue to have protection within the reduced EU, provided we have a reciprocal arrangement in the UK.

However if EU law in future no longer applies to the UK, our PFN's would lose their protection within the UK, something the UK Government could remedy by passing similar legislation in the UK. As I understand it, the treaties that regulate the UK's membership of the EU give a timescale of around two years for formal exit of the EU and so it is likely our protection would continue to at least then giving our Government time to introduce PFN legislation."

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.