A report by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has outlined a significant decline in UK food export volumes in the first quarter of 2024 (Q1), falling by over 20% on the year.

The FDF’s latest Trade Snapshot report found that between January and March 2024, there was a significant decline in UK food export volumes. This represents the lowest Q1 volume in the last 15 years – except for “an exceptional period” in Q1 2021, which saw the end of the transition period and the global pandemic.

Total export value of food and drink for Q1 stood at £5.7 billion, falling 5.3% when compared with the same period the previous year. Ireland remains the UK’s largest export market, despite a fall of 3.5% to £1 billion.

The findings suggest that rising costs and the global economic slowdown have been impacting trade substantially. To help address this decline, the FDF said that improved support for exporters is needed, particularly for SMEs, which are “more vulnerable to the challenges posed by new costs and processes.”

The FDF added: “In addition, industry requires a supportive business environment that allows firms to compete overseas and doesn’t saddle companies with costly and unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

Import volumes on the rise

Food import volumes increased by over 7% on the year and import values increased by 0.4% to £14.8 billion.

The report highlights the impact of the introduction of the Export Health Certificate for medium-risk EU goods in January of this year under the Border Target Operating Model (BTOM). According to the FDF, this has led to increased costs and bureaucracy for traders, reflected in the decline of beef and poultry imports. The second phase of the BTOM, which took effect at the end of April, introduced new checks and fees, adding to the challenges faced by the industry.

Balwinder Dhoot, director of industrial growth and sustainability at the FDF, said: “Trade in food and drink plays a critical role in the UK’s food supply resilience and the industry contributes billions to the UK economy. Our analysis is concerning, with food export volumes seeing a significant decline by over a fifth on the year.

“The next Government must help unlock the full competitive trade potential of the UK’s largest manufacturing sector by delivering a trade strategy that builds business confidence and provides greater support for exporters to arrest this decline.”

Trading opportunities outlined

The report also focuses on opportunities to enhance existing trading arrangements with Turkey, South Africa and Morocco and potential new opportunities in the Gulf Region, the UK’s second largest non-EU market for food and drink exports.

Trade with Turkey now ranks in the top twenty destinations for food and drink exports, increasing by 0.8% to reach a record high of £60 million. Imports from Turkey also rose by 15.2% to reach £197.5 million with fruits (£54.7 million) and fish (£30.4 million) the highest value imports. Exports to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) increased by 4.3% to nearly £196 million, with cheese (£12 million) and soft drinks (£5.8 million) showing strong growth.