Food shortages ‘not inconceivable’ after Brexit – Greencore chief

Patrick Coveney says UK could face months of shortages if it fails to reach deal with EU

Patrick Coveney, Greencore Group chief executive

Patrick Coveney, Greencore Group chief executive

 

Food shortages in the UK lasting up to four months were “not inconceivable” after it quits the EU next March given the potential for a hard Brexit, a leading food company chief executive has said.

Patrick Coveney, chief executive of Greencore, a major food producer in the UK, said the company was, along with major UK supermarket chains, “pushing hard” on the British government warning about the risks of food shortages given how Brexit might disrupt the supply of food from Europe to the UK.

“The one thing for sure that will create dramatic and immediate political instability post-March is two, three, four weeks or months of real food shortages in the UK, which is not inconceivable with the direction of travel particularly towards a hard Brexit,” Mr Coveney told a conference in Dublin.

Speaking at a British Irish Chamber of Commerce conference in Dublin on Brexit’s impact on the agri-food sector, the businessman warned that “very pragmatic” solutions were required for the transition period after the UK leaves the EU to avoid disruption to food supplies and food shortages in the UK.

The Greencore chief – a brother Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney – said Brexit would be “catastrophic” for many businesses if it were “to unfold as badly as it could”.

Fudged solution

He expects an “11th-hour” solution and “a fudge” to be found to break the deadlock between the EU and UK negotiators seeking a Brexit deal and that the prospect of a catastrophic hard Brexit was “pretty low”.

The Irish-based food multinational was not really concerned about potential tariffs after Brexit but about “getting fresh food in and out of the UK”, he said.

Unless solutions were found to avoid post-Brexit border checks, UK consumers would have “a huge problem” buying fruit and vegetables all year round.

“If you end up with 50-mile tailbacks in Calais and corresponding tailbacks in Dover, it won’t really matter whether there is a 15 or 20 per cent surcharge on lettuce and fruit and vegetables coming from southern Europe. It will all rot in containers and there is no good answer to that at the moment,” he said.

Greencore is the third-largest food company in the UK and one of the largest suppliers of sandwiches and convenience food to supermarkets in Britain. The company’s single biggest Brexit risk was to its 12,000 staff in the UK, which included a significant number of Irish in the UK, said Mr Coveney.

No-deal talk

Minister for Agriculture Michael Creed told the conference that he was “concerned” about talk of “a no-deal Brexit” re-emerging and that no deal would be the “worst possible deal for the agri-food sector”.

He warned about the urgency of breaking the deadlock in negotiations with Brexit looming next year.

“The time available is not unlimited,” he added.

Mr Creed said the British government’s Chequers proposal – which would keep the UK closely tied to EU rules – was, while flawed, the “best chance” of getting an agreement.

“The alternative is unthinkable,” he said.

The Minister said Government contingency planning for no deal was “well under way” on checks for food standards, certification and the need for increased staff, he said.

The Government did not want to put the “cart before the horse” by asking the EU for financial support on new direct transport links yet to compensate Ireland for a “bad deal”.

“We are not flying a white flag and saying ‘Listen, because this is going to be so bad …’ We still hope that it is as close to the current trading relationship,” he said.