Figures from the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) show that while food and drink exports are recovering in non-EU markets, overall sales of UK food and drink are down compared to pre-Covid levels.

Sales of UK food and drink to non-EU countries were up 13%, accounting for 46.6% (£4.3 billion) of all UK food and drink exports in the first half of 2021, driven by a return to growth in China, Singapore, Australia, Japan and the Gulf region. This increase means non-EU exports are now almost back to pre-Covid levels.

In other non-EU markets, including in Central and South America, sales to some countries have doubled since the first half of 2020. The fastest growing major export markets in the region were:

  • Colombia (+142.6%)
  • Mexico (+111.2%)
  • Chile (+105.4%)
  • Brazil (+87.2%).

FDF reported that the increase has been driven by a recovery in sales of whisky and vegetable oils, supported by increased demand for other UK products growing rapidly from a much lower baseline.

Despite the return to growth in these countries, overall sales of UK food and drink are down £2 billion compared to pre-Covid levels. FDF figures suggested this was because of a sharp drop in sales to the EU.

A combination of the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, and new barriers to trade resulting from the new trading arrangements, have led to a fall in exports to the EU of more than a quarter since the first half of 2019. Exports to nearly all EU member states fell significantly, including a loss of more than £0.5 billion in sales to Ireland, while sales to Germany, Spain and Italy are each down around a half since H1 2019.

UK imports of food and drink were down nearly 10% in the first half of 2021 compared to pre-Covid levels, however imports from non-EU markets increased during this period. Imports from the EU were particularly badly impacted by the pandemic and the new trading relationship, falling nearly 15% since 2019, a loss of £2.4 billion.

The loss of UK exports to the EU contributed to reduced demand for EU ingredients for use in UK manufacturing, while import substitution by UK manufacturers and retailers also had an impact. According to FDF, imports from the EU are likely to deteriorate further in 2022 after the UK’s full border controls are in place. Products of animal origin were heavily impacted, with a large fall in imports of pork (-19.6%), cheese (-17.6%) and chicken (-17.9%).

“Serious difficulties”

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade, FDF, said that the return to growth in exports to non-EU markets is “welcome news”, but it “doesn’t make up for the disastrous loss of £2bn in sales to the EU.”

Goudie added: “It clearly demonstrates the serious difficulties manufacturers in our industry continue to face and the urgent need for additional specialist support.”

“Growing evidence of businesses relocating”

John Whitehead, Food & Drink Exporters Association, said: “So many factors continue to impact on the drop in value of UK food and drink exports, with supply chain challenges and the inability to connect face to face with customers adding to the difficulties.

“There is growing evidence that the complexity of trading with the EU has led to businesses moving operations into Europe and of importers looking for alternative suppliers, contributing to the ongoing decline in both UK exports and UK jobs.”