Listening to policy announcements after the party conferences and in the run-up to the autumn statement, I was struck by the lack of genuine and positive announcements to support the food industry and tackling inflation in the cost of living crisis.
As we move towards a general election and the government announces more trade deals, I am also reflecting on what was promised to us when the UK left the EU.
Brexit was billed as good news for the industry. Imports of European goods would face higher tariffs and the “buy British” trend would grow, we were told. However, in recent months, we are seeing the total opposite. Due to the combination of ill-thought-out tariff deals, our British artisan cheese industry is on a cliff-edge due to a double whammy of potential changes to import legislation and new food taxes.
For instance, this month UK cheese exporters warned failing to agree a permanent new deal with Canada – or extend the so-called “cheese letters” that set up temporary arrangements – would lead to tariff-free export quotas being slashed for UK cheese exporters to the country.
This will affect the smaller UK cheese producers in particular. Big business protectionism would give around 85% of the import quota to big dairy companies in Canada. This export market is worth over £1.5m of sales to us, and comes at a time when we’re all trying to preserve and grow the artisanal stilton market.
Other issues are also looming. For one, there is the proposed salt tax to UK producers. However, it should not be categorised in the same way as HFSS guidelines, as it’s essential for producing and preserving artisan cheese.
At this stage it’s being positioned that the tax may only be applied to UK-produced cheese and not imported. If this is not resolved by active lobbying, we will be seriously disadvantaged as an industry and the market will be flooded with cheap, poor-quality and high-salt cheese products from abroad.
The UK has a rich specialist and artisan cheesemaking industry and we should be proud of who and what we are. It’s very strange that whilst we face more barriers to exporting, imported cheese faces no requirement for vet certificates or extra administration. It appears current policymakers are aiming to make it more and more difficult for British producers, while opening the floodgates to imports.
We know there is a huge opportunity for artisan cheese such as stilton, particularly amongst a younger audience. When we launched our premium 1912 Stilton, we worked with food influencers across social media to provide inspiration and trend-setting content, to take stilton beyond the cheeseboard and into delicious everyday recipes.
We are now seeing some green shoots of new young foodies responding to this and coming into the market, but if these issues I’ve detailed are not resolved, there is a risk of smaller cheesemakers giving up.
We were told Brexit would support British business, but the current plans for taxes and reducing tariffs would be giving importers a massive competitive advantage. We are appealing to the government to listen to our industry and dial back some of these initiatives, rather than providing quick policy wins prior to an election.
If we don’t get the support we need, I for one will be marching on parliament to protest and preserve our industry, and I encourage my fellow master cheesemakers to do the same.