Richard North, 08/08/2019  

Give the legacy media an opportunity to raise a scare and they'll be right there, flashing their lurid headlines and piling in to warn of perils to come – heedless of whatever the reality might be. Theirs is not to assess what they are told, merely to copy it down and regurgitate it, as long as it comes from a "prestige" source.

Thus, when food industry's representatives, in the form of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), step up to the plate and make a statement of the bleedin' obvious – that there could be food shortages if incoming shipments are delayed at the ports after Brexit – Reuters and the rest of the media immediately splatter that "news" across their websites and pages, and into the ether.

The fact is, though, that this is no more "news" today (or yesterday) than it was the day before, or the day before that – right down to the 23 June 2016. Nor will it be any more "news" tomorrow or the day after that. It is, as we say, simply a statement of the bleedin' obvious.

The essential thing that would make it news would be an event (or even several events) which made port delays more likely but, as between this week, last week and the weeks before that, nothing has happened that would make the situation more prone to disruption than it has ever been.

On the contrary, the government assumption is that delays to imported foods post-Brexit – deal or no deal – are less likely than they've been for a good while, notwithstanding that, ever since the government said it was going to impose no new checks on foods imported from EU Member States, the possibility was never very high.

Still though, we get the likes of the Guardian splatting out typically mindless "prestige" driven copy, blathering that: "Many trade experts, from the government's own analysts to the Bank of England, expect a no-deal Brexit to cause severe disruption at ports, potentially delaying food imports".

The paper then relies on a comfort quote from Tim Lang, "a professor of food policy at City University in London" – a man with a sociology PhD and no technical expertise in food distribution (or food safety) whatsoever, a man who, as head of the Livingston-funded, left-wing London Food Commission, made himself a laughing stock in the late '80s and 90s over his amateur contributions to the rash of food scares.

But he is the Guardian's favoured all-purpose expert, who this week wrote a highly critical article in the Lancet accusing the government of being "secretive" over the public health dangers of a no-deal Brexit. Thus, the famous professor Lang is able to tell us:
This is an institutional crisis of the government's own making through its lack of leadership. The food industry, rightly, does not want to be blamed for the likely shortages and has been trying for two years to warn the government, while consumers are left in the dark. This also drives a coach and horses through national advice on nutrition and health.
Yet, although the big issue, as we recorded right at the start, was the possibility of checks delaying UK consignments arriving in the Continental ports, clogging up the ports and then bringing the ferries and the Eurostar trains to a halt because they were unable to discharge their loads at their destinations, this is no longer the problem it was.

Over time, we have seen the Continental ports setting up systems which will prevent the ferries and trains being overwhelmed. Nothing from the British end will be able to set off across the Channel unless it already has clearance, while the UK authorities are setting up a permit system which will prevent trucks arriving at the ports unless they are cleared to load.

On that basis, those principal factors – the ones which which would cause delays to trucks carrying food shipments from EU Member States, headed for UK destinations – simply will not materialise. Lang – as with many other "experts" – is talking out of his arse.

Probably, in the first few weeks after Brexit, since general cargo levels may be down as shippers take a cautious approach on non-time-sensitive loads, the traffic throughput may be depressed. If anything, food shipments from the Continent might get a swifter passage than normal.

At the UK end, there may or may not be tariffs payable, but HMRC have already put in place measures for remote payment, using electronic means, on the basis of trader self-declaration. This will not afford any delays at the ports.

And most of the goods, we are told, will be fruits and vegetables from (mainly) Spanish destinations – although there will doubtless be the usual flow of pork and dairy products from Denmark (although not via Calais), and poultry products from the Netherlands.

As regards the fruit and vegetables, even now under EU law - unlike with products of animal origin - there is provision for inland inspection when the goods arrive at their destinations. So even if the UK decided to maintain a basic level of phytosanitary checks, this should not give rise to any delays at the ports.

As to products such as the huge volumes of Danish bacon coming into the country, since we will be no longer under the remit of EU law, this is no big deal. I used to have a bacon factory on my patch in Croydon, where truck-loads of cured pig carcases would arrive daily, for processing into retail packs.

The factory quality control system would pick out the unsound product – mainly undetected, deep-seated abscesses and the occasional mis-cure – and stack the rejects neatly in a dedicated trailer. Once a week, I would arrive to check the load, sign the "voluntary condemnation" certificate and off it would go to the incinerator. Public health was never at risk. The system worked smoothly and efficiently.

In other words, as things currently stand, there is actually little chance of food shortages arising from delays at the ports as a result of Brexit. Bad weather, delaying ferries, is probably a bigger risk. The even greater risk is panic buying, where fear of shortages trigger excess buying, stripping shelves faster than they can be replenished. And, if anything, that is precisely what the current bout of "news" is set to cause.

Nevertheless, that does not stop the ritual wibble from the likes of the Brexit-hating Independent. It has their associate editor, Sean O'Grady, write under the headline, "A single cherry tomato can explain why Britain's food future looks bleak with a no-deal Brexit".

The technical description for such pieces is "utter bollocks", but that doesn't stop O'Grady waxing lyrical about the "very big and grand" dreams of Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman and the passionate will of Francois Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl, combining to make a reality of the European ideal, then to tell us he is "much more impressed by the story of a Spanish cherry tomato".

"Let's call him Tomas", gushes the irrepressible O'Grady, who is saddened by the thought that we "may well be seeing a little less of Tomas as no-deal Brexit hurtles towards us with all its capacity for logistical destruction".

Picking up on the other half of yesterday's story, where the food and retail sectors are "begging the government" to waive competition laws and allow them to collude and organise themselves in order to manage "scarce supplies", O'Grady dwells on "the chaos that will engulf us come Halloween" and thus finds it to be unsurprising that the trade wants this permission, "to face this self-inflicted national emergency".

"Lyrical" scarcely begins to describe O'Grady's next contribution, as he trills:
Picked at close to peak perfection from the vine in Alicante, Tomas, like another 20 million tonnes per year of his compadres, an unbelievable volume – is trucked across the Pyrenees, all the way up the autoroutes through France to Calais.

There, Tomas is loaded onto a Channel Tunnel train en route to Folkestone, where he continues his trek to the supermarket distribution centre in Dartford, and from there heads to your local Co-op, Tesco Metro or Little Waitrose and, hopefully, performs a sweetly vital role in livening up your lunch. It all takes just a few days.
With that in mind, says O'Grady, "You can see how no-deal Brexit and titanic queues [in] the Channel ports could crush the hopes of our plucky little Tomas and, as it happens, reduce him to mere passata".

We're "not snowflakes", he then avers. So we British "can live without Spanish cherry tomatoes, or any other cherry tomatoes". But, on the other hand, we should not underestimate the dependence we have on imports of fresh food from the EU – the stuff that cannot be stockpiled, even if our cold stores had the capacity, which they do not.

For the rest, O'Grady focuses on the UK having to source its supplies from elsewhere in the world, including America "which "will be only too happy to ship over tomatoes grown in Florida and California".

"I'm sure they're delicious, but they may be genetically modified, or cultivated in ways that the British might disapprove of", he concludes, "or we can stick with Tomas the Cherry Tomato, who is no nursery story, but is a plucky example of a modern economic miracle".

A "nursery story" Tomas may not be, but O'Grady's account is certainly a fairy story. But this is as good as it gets from our legacy media which has and will continue to fail to read Brexit correctly.

As long as there is a market in the UK and our closest neighbours are willing to sell us produce, there is every reason to believe that, in the immediate aftermath of Brexit, it will not be port delays which hamper deliveries. And if we maintain a no-tariff regime, as our government has pledged, trade should continue normally – for as long as we can afford it.

For the rest, I simply don't see the legacy media getting to grips with the true impact of a no-deal Brexit. While their hacks hunt for queues of trucks on the roads of Kent, our export trade with the Continent will be collapsing, unseen, unrecorded – and unpredicted.

That is where the damage will lie, but the one thing we cannot expect is for the media to notice – or report correctly what they see. But give them a scare, and they'll splat it right across their headlines. They just can't help themselves.

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