Truss is no support for cheese

Blessed are the cheesemakers, for they will inherit Liz Truss’s vision of the earth.

Trade secretary Liz Truss is famous for her obsession with cheese. Unfortunately this zeal does not translate into recognition of the damage done to the UK’s cheese businesses by Brexit. Instead, it manifests itself in maniacal enthusiasm for miniscule trade deals struck with countries who either have established cheese industry themselves (Australia, Canada) or very little appetite for the stuff (Japan). This wilful blindness seems all the more exasperating when the evidence shows that the industry has been walloped by Brexit.

Sales of British cheeses plummeted by 72 per cent from £ 151 million in the first quarter of 2020 to just £42.8 million in the first three months of 2021. The dairy industry as a whole saw exports fall by over 90 per cent.

Screenshot of BBC tweet

The trade deal with Japan

When Truss crowed about the Japan deal and the tariff free access for cheesemakers, she skimmed over the fact that the only thing the Japanese are known for in regard to cheese is their pretty much universal dislike of the stuff. She also failed to explain that tariffs on hard cheeses won’t come off until 2033. Hard cheese, indeed.

She did, however, manage to wangle a bit of a deal for Stilton, sweetened (if that is a word which can be used in the context of a cheese renowned for its pungent aroma!) by a jar of the iconic product for the Japanese foreign minister Toshimitsu Motegi. In 2019, the Japanese spent a whopping (apologies for the sarcasm) £102,000 on blue cheese and, yes, this may grow, but really! £102,000 is the tiniest drop in a very faraway ocean yet, according to Truss, cheese sealed the deal.

The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, provided these figures in a report last summer:

2019 cheese exports to Japan were worth £2.2m, giving an average price* across all cheese types of £5,150/tonne. In comparison, the average price of UK cheese exports overall was £3,400. This suggests that the Japanese market is looking for premium products. Blue cheese varieties fetched the highest price of the three at £8,280/tonne. However, their small volumes meant blue cheese exports to Japan were still only worth £102k total in 2019. If a favourable deal can be struck, we may see this grow in the future. *All average prices stated have been estimated by dividing trade value by trade volume

These numbers really are very small and are absolutely dwarfed by the scale of lost business as a result of Brexit. Unfortunately, Truss and other Brexiters seem transfixed by big percentage increases on very small numbers. Any business will tell you they would never trade away consistent single digit growth on a big chunk of business for flashy numbers on a tiny portion, yet this is what Brexit has meant and it will take a lot more than a few piddling orders from Japan to make up the deficit.

Hartington Creamery’s Stephen Spurrell (about whom we wrote earlier this year) was reported by the Independent in March as saying:

“Each parcel, pallet or container of Stilton required a veterinary surgeon certificate costing £180 per destination while each order costs only £30” which he said meant there was “absolutely no way” the dairy could continue with their online sales to the EU.

Mr Spurrell said the costly paperwork, which he first came across in January after having 60 parcels returned from the EU with “no explanation,” would stifle his profits. 

“About 20% of our overall online turnover was with the EU,” he said. “We’ve had that completely and utterly wiped off overnight.”

Australia deal….favours Australia…

And the Australia deal, which sets a dangerous precedent for other countries like the US and Canada with hugely powerful dairy industries and domestic cheese production, is set to benefit Australian farmers and destroy our own, so there’ll be no compensatory bonanza there.

But let’s imagine that Brexit has opened up lucrative new and growing markets for our cheesemakers and they are looking to ramp up (to use a favourite government phrase) production to meet the demand…only, hang on! Here’s another problem! Staff shortages because of – you guessed it – BREXIT!

Hampered by a depleted workforce, Clive Richer of Ilchester-based Norseland (who produce Jarlsberg, Ilchester, Mexicana and Applewood cheeses, amongst others) said earlier this week that many of their European employees went back home after Brexit and that it has been a struggle ever since to replace them

“because of the general exodus of EU workers across the county and the UK as a whole.”

And that’s not the only challenge he faces. He continued: “The Road Hauliers’ Association recently said that the availability of HGV drivers had reached “catastrophic levels” and this will obviously have a knock-on effect for the food and drink industry as a whole.”

Shortage of HGV drivers impacting food availablility and prices

Where’s the queen of cheese?

But where is Liz Truss in the midst of all this? Liz Truss who was once sufficiently clear-sighted to take this stance:

Like a chunk of mozzarella on a barbie, she appears, in the heat of the moment, to have melted away.