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Sue Parfett: "Even if we grow our own, a better price or an exchange rate fluctuation can mean UK food starts heading abroad"

Insight from the experts

Sue Parfett takes a look at what Brexit means to the world of catering

Posted by Stephanie Broad | September 05, 2016 | Catering & hospitality

I recently watched The Imitation Game, where Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Alan Turing was obsessed with cracking the Germans’ Enigma code. 

To a certain extent, trying to predict food post-Brexit bears some similarities to the puzzle faced by Turing during World War II. Food and food costs received a lot of coverage pre-referendum. As with many of the ‘facts’ argued by both sides, especially in politics, they each selected those parts of the argument that suited them. What the coverage often leaves out, as you may have noticed, is any detail that is useful to the average caterer whose business involves food. 

When trying to set a budget, the information can be difficult to juggle. In fact, many schools’ budgets are set around or before Easter when the outcome of the referendum was pure speculation, let alone the impact. 

So, where does an average caterer turn to for realistic information? There are an ever growing number of food purchasing organisations. Many take ‘the past is the predictor of the future’ route. I have seen some use the last 12 months as a predictor of the next twelve. If food inflation was two per cent last year, how does that help with planning a budget given the current turmoil? 

Then, often the ‘inflation’ referred to is retail price index, which doesn’t help with wholesale prices. Food is now a world commodity and we have to realise that this is impacting in the UK. Even if we grow our own, a better price or an exchange rate fluctuation can mean UK food starts heading abroad. So we have to make sure our advisors are as well informed as a city trader when it comes to advising on market fluctuations.

Are we about to see a return to 'grow your own'?

Mike Meek, Procurement Director at independent purchasing specialist allmanhall, says: "With market turbulence and future uncertainty around our international trading arrangements, currency, EU market access and agricultural subsidies, a retrospective and historical view such as Consumer Price Index (CPI) becomes less helpful when forecasting future changes to food prices.

“The exposure to the weakened sterling has an impact not only on imports, but also heightens the attractiveness of new export markets. In addition to the exchange rate, we also monitor all other price volatility drivers including yields, energy costs, weather and geopolitical factors all effecting the price of food.” 

Added to this the frequently reported supermarket stranglehold means profit margins are squeezed. There are also the EU subsidies to think about. Meurig Raymond of National Farmers Union (NFU) points out British farmers receive EU subsidies of £2.4bn-£3bn per year – which amounts to approximately 55 per cent of the average income of farmers (£20,000/year).

This all paints a gloomy picture. However, in education, there are approaches we can make if everyone works together. At the quicker, easier end, it is introducing our youngsters to less popular, therefore less costly items. We, at Brookwood, have been helping our catering managers promote unusual fish. Bringing back some kitchen skills such as butchery may help. Mincing, dicing, boning and filleting rather than buying items ready processed. We have the opportunity to buy food that had been thrown away by the EU; who can forget straight cucumbers? I have seen schools beginning to grow their own produce and even rearing pigs. These individually may not be the answer but it may be part of it.

In the UK one of our national characteristics, apart from mistrusting politicians, is being stoic. So whether it is the millennium bug, comets heading this way or the end of the world we take tend to take these quietly in our stride.  Nevertheless, we could learn from our elders for facing some our current food issues, as well as the well-used wartime phrase ‘Keep calm(ish) and carry on’.

Sue Parfett is Managing Partner of independent schools’ caterer, The Brookwood Partnership.

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