Businesses understand a no-deal Brexit would mean inevitable food shortages, but it would also provide an opportunity to engage customers with the concepts of food miles, seasonality and provenance, says Shane Brennan, chief executive at the FSDF.
In July, shortly after taking over at the Food Storage and Distribution Federation (FSDF), I received my first call from a journalist asking me to confirm whether businesses were booking up warehouse space in preparation for a potential no-deal Brexit.
In the months since then, the idea of queues, stockpiles and shortages has become one of the most vivid practical illustrations of what a no-deal Brexit could mean in practice.
This kind of media gaze is not something our industry is accustomed to.
FSDF is the trade association for food logistics providers. Our membership is overwhelmingly drawn from companies which specialise in moving and storing frozen and chilled food for producers, manufacturers and retailers.
It is a segment of the FMCG industry which has been the victim of its own success for many years – efficient, reliable and largely unnoticed.
It has dominated the headlines, and so many would be forgiven for believing that stockpiling is the only business option available for coping with no deal. In fact, it is only one, quite limited, option available for food businesses.
That said, for many it is Plan A.
Whether it be a manufacturer which does not want to see production lines grinding to a halt for lack of one critical ingredient; or a retailer that wants to avoid shortage of a key top selling product line, the best option is to maintain supplies.
However, those seeking to increase inventory in this way have quickly come up against a problem. There is not enough storage space to meet this unprecedented demand.
Decades of focus on efficiency has seen ‘unnecessary’ storage costs driven out of the supply chain wherever possible.
Our geography makes it possible for distribution operations based in the centre of the UK mainland to serve 90 per cent of the country with goods, within one lorry driver’s working shift.
As a result, our food logistics businesses have led the world in perfecting the just-in-time transformation which is now largely ubiquitous across modern day manufacturing and retail.
So, while stockpiling dominates the headlines, businesses have been aware for some time that the reality of preparing for no deal is not planning to avoid shortages, but rather planning to manage the inevitable shortages that will arise.
This means carefully auditing ranges product-line-by-product-line to assess what the supply chain risk is, considering whether alternatives supply options are available and if not, planning to adapt ranges.
The objective will be to keep shelves full, even if the products on offer are different to what customers would usually expect.
Over decades our food chain has evolved to provide unparalleled choice and availability.
It is a feat of significant progress that a UK consumer can purchase any food they like, from anywhere in the world, at any time of year. It is something we have become used to.
A no-deal Brexit may create a window of time when that is not the case, maybe for a few days, maybe for a few months.
But it is also an opportunity to engage customers in concepts of food miles, seasonality and provenance.
What we can be sure of is, whatever the short-term pain, our world-class manufacturing, supply chain and retail businesses will get through it.
And of course, with the prospect of some sort of transitional deal still hopefully to be agreed, none of this may come to pass at all.
Shane can be found tweeting at @ShaneFSDF