Euro Channel: Au Revoir Colin et Percy

This week, British supermarket giant M&S announced that it would be closing over half of its French stores. Leaving only nine bricks-and-mortar shops, M&S have cited the difficulties in the supply chain caused by Brexit as the reason.

With the issues posed by trade and regulatory barriers heightened by the pandemic-induced HGV driver shortage, M&S’ fresh and chilled food has not been able to reach French supermarket shelves in time.

These closures come in contrast to the general trends in French food exports: whilst food and drink exports shrunk by a third in Germany, Italy and Spain, 2020 sales to France saw an 14.4% increase. According to the FDF, France remains one of the UK’s top 3 export partners (alongside Ireland and the US).

France is clearly an important player in the UK’s food and drink economy – although M&S’ 11 store closures will make up only a small amount of British food and drink sales to France, this microcosm raises the question of what food and drink producers must do to battle the growing hardships in exporting.

Reports by the Food & Drink Exporters Association show that the top 10 exports from the UK to the EU, whilst all down in 2021 from 2019 with the exception of British salmon, are:

  • Whisky
  • Chocolate
  • Salmon
  • Lamb and mutton
  • Cheese
  • Beef
  • Milk and cream
  • Soft drinks
  • Savoury snacks
  • Sauces and condiments

So many of these products have a strong British heritage – with so many EU countries, including France, having their own unique culinary identity, perhaps the Government needs to employ a multi-pronged approach to safeguard the future of British foods exports around the globe.

Whilst issues of regulations, trade checks and unique food origin and name protections are vital to be solved in the policy world between the UK and the EU, with agreements and compromises inevitable – especially when it comes to fresh and perishable products – there is also an opportunity for the UK Government to engage in a campaign to carve out and increase international consumer desire for uniquely British products. With news in June that the GREAT campaign is being refreshed, perhaps these products should take centre stage.

Just like French and Italian cuisine, the UK food sector can elevate itself in the eyes of international gastronomes, strategically and proactively marketing our unique products to the world. Just as the UK cannot imagine a warm summer’s evening without an Aperol Spritz or a traditional French restaurant as the go-to for a romantic meal – dinner parties across the world should look to impress with Welsh lamb and Scotch should be the nightcap of choice.

The closures of M&S in France should act as a catalyst for change – the UK Government must step up its game to ensure the necessary policies are complemented by an intelligent and targeted marketing campaign to secure the future of British food and drink exports.

For food and drink businesses themselves, it’s vital to stay on top of regulatory and policy developments, maintain representation through trade associations or look to take their futures in their own hands by exploring market access in new countries.


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