Food shelves will be empty in a no-deal Brexit — warn retailers

Retailers have warned a no-deal Brexit could leave supermarket shelves empty in the short term. However, the letter has been criticised by MPs as more ‘Project Fear’ than reality. There’s no doubt Britain relies on the EU for some produce, but what can retailers do to soften the blow of Brexit’s upcoming uncertainty? 

The warning came from the British Retail Consortium, of which Marks & Spencer, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s are involved with. The letter stated that Britain’s food supply would be majorly disrupted in a no-deal Brexit. It referenced the Government’s own projection that freight through Calais could fall 87 per cent from its current levels. With 30 per cent of the food consumed in Britain from the EU, this could threaten the availability and shelf life of many products. 

Another shelf life challenge relates to the procedure of checking non-EU trucks as they enter and leave the EU. Logistics experts have warned that an extra two minutes of checks per each truck leaving Europe for Britain could result in a 17-mile tailback in just one day. Should these predictions come to fruition, products with higher shelf lives will be integral to sustaining Britain’s appetite. 

Food manufacturers have long used packaging techniques to achieve extended shelf lives for products. This includes vacuum sealing, controlled atmosphere packaging (CAP) and modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). 

In combination with other techniques, which include high temperature processing and reducing water and pH levels in food, these sealing methods were originally developed to minimise the risk of harmful bacteria in products. However, the extended shelf-life of these foods may prove invaluable if retailers’ no-deal Brexit predictions are correct. 

MAP, CAP and vacuum sealing are commonly associated with meat, seafood and poultry. However, one of the primary concerns of retailers is related to fresh fruit and vegetables. In March, when Britain meets its Brexit deadline, British produce is out of season. Usually during this time, 90 per cent of lettuces and 80 per cent of tomatoes sold in Britain are grown in the EU.  

Experts have suggested planning for contingency supply routes in order to transport fresh fruits and vegetables from farms to stores as quickly as possible. However, had retailers had more time to prepare for the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, they could have sourced alternative packaging options for respiring products like these.

Prolonging the lifespan of fruit and vegetables entails minimising respiration rates. While this reduction is somewhat possible with MAP, respiration rates of stored produce can be controlled exceptionally well with CAP. CAP works by making alterations to the package during its lifespan by adding oxygen absorbers or nitrogen to achieve optimal gas composition. 

Unlike MAP, which is a retail-ready option, CAP is more of a storage tactic. However, both techniques could prove essential to prolonging the lifespan of these foods in the event of a disrupted food supply chain. Therefore, if trucks were stuck in a 17-mile queue in Calais, tonnes of respiring products will not necessarily go to waste. 

At this stage of Brexit negotiations, it is not feasible for retailers to switch to these storage methods. However, the potential disruption of Brexit could force the industry to reassess how they prioritise the shelf lives of products.