UK food and drink exports have dropped by £2.7bn in the first three quarters of 2021 compared with pre-pandemic levels, due to a plunge in sales into the EU. 

The Food & Drink Federation found that overall industry exports had dropped 15.9% in the first three months of the year, as sales to EU countries fell 23.5% (£2.4bn) due to new barriers to trade with the EU as well as the ongoing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

It found that exports to core markets including Germany (–44.5%), Italy (–43.3%) and Spain (–50.6%) had been particularly badly hit since 2019, while UK exports to Ireland – the industry’s biggest overseas market – were down more than a quarter since 2019.  

Conversely, gobal exports of whisky and salmon have started to recover, with sales of both products up 21% compared with 2020.  

All other major products, including beef (–18.4%), cheese (–13.2%) and pork (–5.7%) have continued to decline, with the exception of soft drinks, which grew 11% from 2020.  

Exports to non-EU markets were more positive in the past year, with exports outside the EU up 11%, driven by a return to strong growth in China (22.1%), Taiwan (21.8%), the UAE (18.3%), Japan (10.6%) and Singapore (5.4%). 

Overall imports have significantly declined too, albeit at a slower pace. Sales from the EU were down nearly 11% in the nine months to September compared to pre-Covid levels, with imports down from the Netherlands (–19%), Ireland (–20.1%) and Germany (–33.1%). 

The FDF said that with the UK due to implement its delayed import controls on products arriving from the EU in 2022, further stress could be put on industry trade. The new controls will “further impact the cost and availability of supplies of food and drink from the EU, including essential ingredients and raw materials required by UK manufacturers”, it said. 

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the FDF, said: “It is extremely disappointing to see how badly our trade with the EU has been affected, with our smallest exporters hardest hit. It is essential that the government works constructively with the EU to improve the implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement to ensure that it works for small businesses, otherwise this downturn will be here to stay. 

“The UK government’s recent announcement of plans to take forward the FDF’s proposals to set up a new Food and Drink Export Council and put in place new in-market support are welcome. It is vital that the UK government and devolved nations continue to work with industry to put in place a new model of partnership to support food and drink exporters. 

The FDF said the industry was struggling under the weight of supply chain issues and the lack of available workers. 

“Businesses want to help the government realise its Global Britain ambitions, but they need government to clear the obstacles and help them take advantage of new opportunities,” it stated.