More than a year after the referendum on Britain’s membership to the European Union, most Britons are still no wiser about what Brexit will really mean. One organisation with a clear view of the future is the British Retail Consortium. The organisation has just issued a report warning that, whatever the settlement, food shortages should be expected, and prices will rise across the board. Little wonder: four fifths of food imported to UK shops comes from Europe. There's good reason to believe that cheese will be a chief casualty during Brexit — and, amusing as it might sound, a cheese crisis is no laughing matter: The UK, over the past twelve months, spent £2.8bn on cheese.
Notably, the cost of imports such as French Comté, Italian burrata and Spanish manchego has already started to climb. Even Cheddar, thought of as a quintessentially British cheese, won’t be immune, since Irish cheesemakers currently account for 82% (some 78,000 tonnes) of cheddar imported into the UK, according to Politico. Now that Brexit is looming, some are planning on switching production away from Cheddar to cheeses that appeal more to Europeans: mozzarella, for example. If they follow through, Cheddar supplies here will run low, forcing prices up.
Although the divorce with Europe isn’t remotely finalised, London’s cheese experts are already facing significant challenges. Neal’s Yard Dairy, a pioneer among British cheesemongers, has a thriving export business, selling farmhouse cheeses, such as Stilton and Single Gloucester, to France, Spain, Italy, Hungary, the Netherlands and Belgium.
But if exports have seen short-term benefits owing to a weaker pound, says buyer Bronwen Percival, this won’t last. While the cost of key agricultural imports such as milk (and cheese with it) inevitably rises, she fears that leaving the EU will create new costs for the export business, and that business at home won’t be able to make up the difference. “We are already at the top of the price bracket for artisanal cheeses in European countries,” says Bronwen. “It’s likely that significant tariffs on cheese exports are going to hurt our sales in ways that we will not make up domestically.”
She says the Neal’s Yard Dairy directors are also worried that when the UK leaves the EU, British MPs could tamper with existing food laws. Literally thousands of European cheeses are made with raw (unpasteurised) milk, and British raw milk cheeses such as Baron Bigod (a Brie-style cheese stocked at La Fromagerie) have seen a renaissance recently. Brexit could put an end to that.
Bronwen explains: “Overly restrictive ‘micro limits’ for organisms such as coliforms or even non-toxigenic species of E. coli bacteria make it very difficult to make some types of raw milk cheeses, particularly soft or slowly acidifying styles. The EU has recognised this, and so there is no legal limit for either of these organisms. When limits are set low, it is difficult to make cheeses that conform to legal requirements, even though the cheeses themselves pose absolutely no risk to health.”
Dominic Coyte, who runs Borough Cheese Company, imports and sells Europeans cheeses such as Comté (made from unpasteurised milk) and Gouda. “Brexit for us is a disaster,” he says. “Everyone talks about the weaker pound being good for export — well, that might be the case for some, but it's the total opposite for me.” With his prices already necessarily up 15%, Coyte is planning on selling British cheese for the first time in years, in order to create a part of the business that’s stable while the pound/euro exchange rate wobbles.
Economic uncertainty indeed makes it urgent for cheesemakers to invest in whatever makes their businesses as cost-effective as possible. Mary Quicke, who runs 450-year-old Quicke’s Traditional Ltd in Devon, built an entirely new milking parlour this year, and says: “It has now become really important to make our productivity as good as it possibly can be. We're going to be absolutely messed around if we don't.” She adds that the exodus of EU workers, and the potential loss of access to EU food science, also pose real risks.
Even small British cheesemakers, who make and sell everything here, are worried. Philip Wilton, who runs Wildes in Tottenham, making and selling artisanal cheeses such as the semi-hard cow’s milk Ally Pally White, says the lack of information about Brexit is leaving his business vulnerable: “I want to know: what the bloody hell are you going to do? What does this mean for me? No one can tell me. We can't prepare, we can't do anything.”
As the value of the pound falls and costs rise, Brexit will stretch small and independent British cheesemakers and -mongers to breaking point. Sadly, this might be a crisis that we can’t just eat our way out of.
Wildes and Quicke’s will appear as part of Cheese Street N1 on Chapel Market in Angel, a street cheese market taking place on Sunday 24 September.