February 21, 2024

Tricia Oak

Business & Finance Excellency

I once sold cheese to Europe. Brexit took my business to the brink of destruction | Simon Spurrell

When I voted to remain as a part of the EU it was for practical rather than political reasons. As the founder of a cheesemaking business, my experience of exporting outside the EU had taught me that that leaving the single market would bring my business increased costs and countless problems with bureaucracy.

The news of the referendum result came as a shock, but I took solace in the subsequent promises of a “seamless transition”. Perhaps if we had remained in the single market, the transition really would have been seamless. I resolved to make the best of a bad situation. I had the funds and a plan to build a new fulfilment warehouse for my Cheshire Cheese Company brand. We optimistically created a multilingual version of our website for e-commerce sales and increased our marketing, securing some wholesale distribution in the EU.

The appointment of Boris Johnson in 2019 as prime minister and the subsequent landslide election at the end of that year jettisoned any chance of a sensible democratic outcome for a Brexit deal. Brexit became about tax evasion for those set to lose most from EU transparency regulations. The aim of a hard Brexit was to remove all authority and leverage the EU might retain – including the UK’s membership of the single market. The government shows no sign of acknowledging the difficulties this has caused for small business owners; in the recent budget, there was barely a mention of Brexit at all.

The disastrous turning point for meat and dairy producers came in October 2020, when Johnson used the whip and his majority to force an amendment to the agriculture bill. Food standards protections put into the agriculture bill by the House of Lords were voted down. Johnson needed to be able to reduce food standards to accommodate an expected US trade deal with a second-term Donald Trump. Until this point, there was an expectation that the UK would align its food standards with the EU and provide the UK’s producers with the smooth transition we were promised.

Before the transition period ended, we knew that our wholesale shipments to the EU would need extra checks. We were aware of the requirement for a veterinary-checked Export Health Certificate (EHC) for every wholesale order, and the associated cost of £180 each time.

But what we were not prepared for, or warned about, was the lack of exemption for consumer orders to this regulation, meaning even one single slice of cheese sent to an EU customer would also be liable to the charge.

In the first week of January 2021, multiple parcels sent using DHL to consumers in France, Germany and Italy got returned. Our couriers could offer no explanation, but suggested it was a teething problem. Further investigations and failed attempts to send website orders caused us to abandon our EU consumer sales. Our average e-commerce order before Brexit was 1.5kg of cheese, at a price of around £35 including delivery. But to fulfil this, we were now being expected to absorb £180 in extra export costs on every order, no matter how small.

Most countries include an allowance for foodstuffs to be imported for personal consumption, so did the UK negotiators miss this clause? An exemption for 20kg of fish, was included, with businesses able to send this amount to consumers in the EU without any export fees. I was told by EU commissioners that this exemption on fish was added to the deal by the UK government, something the government denies.

Over the course of 12 months, we lost an estimated £250k in sales. After extensive media coverage, I was granted a meeting with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the agriculture minister, Victoria Prentis. Their recommendation was to consider opening a hub in the EU or concentrating on emerging markets. Neither of these is affordable nor achievable for a small business.

By the summer of 2021, our wholesale exports to our distributors came to an end. The cost of sending a consignment became commercially unviable. The cost of shipping an average wholesale order of around 2.5 tonnes jumped from £400 to £1,200 in the space of three months and we could not absorb the time and expense of the bureaucracy and paperwork. We found ourselves, like other small businesses, trapped on the islands of the UK, and facing increasing competition as small businesses like ours were forced to target domestic customers, no longer being able to afford to ship to the EU. Deals with new emerging markets are biased towards large businesses, and Britain had lost access to the EU single market.

We have been lucky enough to have found a solution: our company was recently bought out by Britain’s largest maker of Cheshire cheese. The third-generation family business has taken a majority stake in our business and provided us with security, growth and – most importantly – a gateway back to the EU via their Netherlands hub.

The cost and complexity of shipping, along with the navigation of the bureaucracy due to each country in the EU interpreting the Brexit deal differently makes it incredibly difficult for small businesses to export to the EU. Small businesses in the UK contribute 45% of the annual turnover, yet we have been made the victims in every trade deal that has been negotiated. No consideration has been given for our contribution to the economy or any support to gain a practical route to export markets. The period since Brexit has been devastating for us, destroying all plans we had for any great future in Europe, one that we were promised.