Trade Tuesday: Brexit leaves a sour taste in the mouth as confectionery exports slump

As Easter approaches, Nick Jessup takes a look at the current state of the confectionery trade.

There’s no denying it – Britain loves chocolate. A 2018 report suggested that the average Brit consumes 8.4kg of chocolate every year, more than any other country in the world. Feeding Britain’s seemingly insatiable sweet tooth is big business – consumers will spend around £12.5bn annually on sugar, confectionery and ice cream products – powering an industry that employs several thousand people in the UK.  Easter egg sales are expected to reach £340.9m, with over 80m eggs being sold.

Prior to Brexit, there were signs that the UK’s chocolate export trade was booming. Alongside whisky, chocolate was at the top of the list of products exported by UK food and drink businesses and in 2019, the UK exported over £730m worth of chocolates around the world, a figure that represented an increase of a third since 2015. 149 countries in the world currently import UK chocolate, and while stalwarts like Dairy Milk remain popular, the growth of independent chocolatiers in the UK has been met with demand for their products abroad, including from Asia and the US.

The growth of chocolate manufacture in the UK has also been good news for exporters of cocoa beans, with Côte d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast) and Ghana both benefitting from being able to export thousands of tonnes of cocoa beans to the UK. Cocoa and cocoa preparations represent a significant chunk of UK imports from the two West African states, and earlier this month, the Department for International Trade confirmed that a trade partnership agreement, guaranteeing tariff-free trade with Ghana, has been signed.

However, the UK’s food and drink sector has been heavily hit by the collapse in food and drink exports to the EU, with chocolate one of the worst affected industries alongside whisky and cheese. Chocolate exports fell from £41.4m to just £13m, representing a decline of 68 per cent, as the Office for National Statistics confirmed that trade between the UK and EU took a hard hit in January, with overall exports down 40.7 per cent compared to December.

Both Brexit and the pandemic are partly to blame for this collapse. With coronavirus restrictions shuttering thousands of hospitality businesses across the continent, demand for food and drink products has understandably decreased. Moreover, changes in regulation as a result of Brexit have increased the paperwork and preparation required for food exports to the EU, prompting the House of Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee to call on the Government to help “streamline” the process.

The Government expects that trade with the EU will recover as the new regulatory environment becomes embedded and the effects of the pandemic begin to wane, but food and drink exporters remain concerned about the long-term impact that Brexit may have on the chocolate trade.

If the challenge of exporting to Europe persists, the UK’s chocolate manufacturers may see the increased exports of the last few years reversed.  Particularly concerned are organic and artisan chocolate manufacturers, which tend to be smaller businesses and some of whom, by virtue of their products being organic, already deal with more “red tape” than conventional chocolate companies. The chocolate industry has also bemoaned the low level of support they have received from the Government and this criticism will likely get louder from the entire food and drink industry if the next few months do not see a swift streamlining of the export process.

The Department for International Trade regularly talks up the value of the UK’s food and drink sector and has made clear that it wants to help facilitate a vast increase in the export of UK-made food and drink. Smoothing out the significant teething problems the chocolate trade is facing as a result of Brexit will need to be a priority if this vision is to be realised.

For all concerned, we have to hope that a solution for the food industry can be reached much faster than was the case for the chocolate war that took place between Britain and the EU. The conflict, which lasted between 1973 and 2000, saw chocolate purists in Europe clash with British manufacturers in a battle of both ingredients and national pride. Thankfully in this case, a compromise was finally reached, and the threat of British chocolate being relabelled as “vegelate” never came to fruition.