The biggest innovation in food this year? Brexit.

The annual Food Matters Live exhibition at London’s ExCel is an excellent opportunity to learn about – and occasionally sample – some of the most interesting food trends to have emerged over the previous twelve months. Last year the most noticeable innovation appeared to be foods partially made from insects, crickets particularly. And why not? Crickets are known for their high protein and low-fat content, so seem the obvious ingredient for, say, a sports nutrition bar. They even tasted…OK (the things that I do for this job).

This year things were a little more low-key. Protein-based products still seemed to dominate, as you might expect: sports nutrition, the sector most associated with protein, continues to go from strength to strength.

But it wasn’t a new ingredient or a new food category that seemed to be the most obvious ‘innovation’ at this year’s Food Matters Live. Instead, it was – for the first time – the conversations that food businesses were having about Britain’s exit from the European Union.

Obviously, this had been decided well before last year’s event. But in the November of 2016, many firms involved in the food sector had decided that Brexit was a long-term risk; a nagging issue perhaps, but not one to worry about just yet. The difference in twelve months is clear. There were four separate sessions at the conference which accompanies the main Food Matters Live exhibition focused solely on Brexit and no doubt it was raised in presentations and questions in numerous different events.

Why the change? The invocation of Article 50 setting a deadline for Britain’s exit in March 2019 and the commencement of negotiations between the EU and the UK on the terms of the latter’s exit have focused minds. For many food businesses, March 2019 actually isn’t that far away – and due to the relative slowness of discussions in Brussels so far, firms are less than sure about how they’ll actually be trading with their EU partners after Britain’s formal exit.

The international nature of Food Matters Live only emphasises the headache for UK-based food businesses. Walking around the hall, many exhibitors would have seen their customers, suppliers, distributors, and marketers, all from across the EU (not to mention the staff on their stalls being drawn from a variety of different Member States). Thanks to the EU-wide nature of food law, the food supply chain now snakes its way from Western Ireland right through to the shores of the Black Sea.

A bad Brexit deal threatens the efficient running of this supply chain and the ability of food businesses to develop the sorts of innovations seen at so many previous Food Matters Live exhibitions. No wonder Britain’s departure from the EU was the key topic for many businesses in 2017.