A shortage of labour, changes to food and drink safety regulations and customs checks once the UK pulls out of the EU were the three top challenges manufacturers would face, said Wright.
Labour was likely to be the thorniest problem, warned Wright. There would be a high churn of workers within the food and drink industry, which could not be replaced by workers from within the UK.
“Large parts of the UK have zero unemployment, meaning there are no available workers. Manufacturers simply cannot find the workforce,” said Wright.
“It’s absolutely the case had there not been a Brexit, we would have expected the number of European workers in the food and drink industry to rise gently over the next five or six years.”
The devaluation of the pound had put off EU workers from coming to the UK, claimed Wright, which had plummeted in the wake of the Brexit vote last year.
He added: “The most serious threat is that the currency has devalued by 20% – their wages have decreased so there is less money to send home. They can go and find jobs elsewhere that will pay them better.”
Wright also warned that a growing level of xenophobia, which arose in light of the Brexit vote in some parts of the country, had created a threatening environment for migrant workers.
The other worry surrounding EU workers was whether or not they would be able to come into the country. There has, so far, been no clarity regarding restriction on EU migrants entering the UK, said Wright.
Restrictions on workers coming into the country
Wright cited a leaked government report, which claimed there would be much tighter restrictions on workers coming into the country after Brexit.
“For our industry, that would be very damaging,” warned Wright.
The second challenge for the UK food and drink industry after Brexit would be complying with changes in in food safety regulations.
Quitting the EU would also mean leaving the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA), which currently regulates food standards across all EU Member States.
These regulations are then implemented by the regional bodies across the country – the Food Standards Agency (FSA) in England, Food Standards Scotland, FSA Northern Ireland and FSA Wales.
“Theoretically, when regulation moves from the EFSA to the UK, it will move straight through central government and be devolved to the regional parliaments and power centres, which would mean we exchange one regulatory regime for four,” said Wright.
“This would create the potential for different food regulations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which would create cost, complexity and a massive degree of confusion.”
‘Complexity and a massive degree of confusion’
The third challenge to the food and drink industry was the threat of customs checks on goods coming into and leaving the country.
“That’s really quite an important point because we don’t have a customs system that could be put in place to manage that,” claimed Wright.
“The customs declaration system which is being developed will not be ready for four years. It will take four years from now to get everybody fully trained up to use that system in a seamless way.”
Food comes into the country without delays under the current system, said Wright. A new customs system after Brexit would create delays and risked spoiling time-sensitive food and drink products.
Wright added: “Any delays at the ports for fresh food or meat or other products with a sell by date could mean they go out of time while they are on the dockside. That will mean shortage and complexity.”
Meanwhile, the FDF and the National Farmers Union are holding a series of forums at the major political party conferences.
Speaking at the Labour Party conference in Brighton last week (September 25), Wright welcomed the party’s support for EU citizens already working in the UK to remain after Brexit.