A fruit and veg supplier to the UK’s biggest ready meal manufacturers has warned that a no-deal Brexit could spell “disaster” for the food industry as perishable foods would be held up at the border for custom checks.
Kaz Mahjouri, managing director of Nottingham-based Start Fresh, told HuffPost UK that British people would be forced to eat only the food the country can produce, in the short term, meaning root vegetables could be the only fresh produce available in supermarkets.
The supplier, who receives up to six truckloads of imported fresh produce a day, said a no-deal Brexit could leave local school children “without fruits and vegetables” the day after Brexit, because there is “nobody to supply it to them”.
His warnings echo concerns by retailers earlier this week that food shortages could lead to higher prices and emptier shelves in the short-term.
As well as ready meal firms, Start Fresh supplies fresh produce to most schools in Nottingham, as well as Nottingham city and the county council, local hospitals, and Loughborough and Nottingham universities.
Mahjouri warned that company costs could double if it has to keep paying for extra lorry drivers who are made to hold items in vehicles queuing at the border, and he warned that everyday, low-cost items and convenience meals could become a “luxury” if those costs are passed down to customers.
“Food shortages will be something everybody will be noticing from the first week. Supermarket shelves will start to get empty after a week,” he said.
“Supermarkets will bring airfreight [from further afield than the EU] but what you’re paying today for a kilo of tomato, say £1, you will end up paying £3 a kilo because you’re paying for air freight and you’re paying for very heavy prices coming from different continents, which they will take advantage of the desperation of the UK market.”
He added: “The business we are in now, we rely heavily on Europe, particularly Spain in winter and Italy, and during the summer we rely heavily on Holland for fresh produce.
“I am only concerned about how we get our product and our goods coming to us without having any knock-on effect. Perishable goods cannot wait a day or two on the border.
“Lorries standing in a queue on the border means we expect a three-day arrival to the UK expands to six or seven days, and we’re going to be hugely concerned about the state of the goods arriving to us.”
The past two years has seen a raft of companies giving no-deal Brexit warnings, from potential plant closures at Airbus, to the possibility that holidaymakers will be hit as travel insurance companies fail to guarantee payouts in a no-deal scenario.
Government data shows nearly one-third of food consumed in the UK originates from the EU – significantly more than the 19% combined from Africa, North America, South America, Asia, the rest Europe, and Australasia.
You can’t keep tomatoes and cucumbers and lettuces and herbs more than three days in the fridge. What can you do with it after that?Kaz Mahjouri
In 2017, fruits and vegetables had the largest trade deficit, according to government figures, meaning imports of £11.1 billion dwarfed exports of £1.2 billion, leaving a £10 billion trade gap.
Asked if his company is considering stockpiling items, Mahjouri said it isn’t practically possible. “We’re not a frozen food company where we can stock food in the freezer. We can only store produce three to four days maximum, and after that it will be spoiled.”
Mahjouri’s comments come as the National Farmers’ Union warned a no-deal Brexit would be “catastrophic” for British farmers, with potential trade embargoes on exporting animal products, and lover import tariffs on food.
The Government earlier this week said the UK has a “high level of food security built upon a diverse range of sources including strong domestic production and imports from other countries.”
It added that this would continue with or without a no-deal Brexit.