Hake news: why it’s chicken, not fish, that the Brexiteers should worry about

Unedifying stunts mispresent our fishing industry's relationship with Europe. But there's another product we should be worrying about—and it’s one we really love

March 22, 2018
Chickening out: are we worrying about the wrong product? Photo: Prospect composite
Chickening out: are we worrying about the wrong product? Photo: Prospect composite

The thought of taking back control over our fishing industry and regaining sovereignty over our coastal waters reliably gets people of a certain demographic going—which is why the fisheries transition arrangements in this week’s draft EU Withdrawal Agreement made the news. Well, that and the fact that this week we were treated to the unedifying spectacle of Nigel Farage, and a group of fishermen and campaigners, throwing a box of dead haddock into the Thames.  (Fellow Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg and friends were unable to dock their trawler to join in the fun because he didn’t have the right permissions.)

Yet dumping dead haddock in the Thames doesn’t make the clever point about policy Farage and chums might think. Haddock is a demersal species. The demersal discard ban, which obliges fisheries to “land” all their catch, has been in place in the UK for over two years, and the pelagic discard ban for three.

What’s more, larger UK fishing quotas were negotiated as a result of the Landing Obligation. This change in EU law was negotiated by… the UK. (If anything, the Remain campaign really should have talked up this influence we appear to have over negotiating fishing policies.)

Wrecking haddock

Fish processing is a far bigger industry here than marine fishing and aquaculture, and we only have an estimated 11757 fishermen—20 per cent of whom work part-time. The UK has been a net importer of fish since 1984, with 721 thousand tonnes coming into the country in 2014, mostly from non-EU countries like Iceland and China, and only 499 thousand tonnes leaving it, mostly to the EU. We import tuna, cod, salmon, shrimps and prawns and export salmon, mackerel and herring.

Becoming more self-sufficient in food terms after Brexit means getting the British public to develop a hitherto undiscovered love for herring. This is going to be hard work, given that the UK eats less fish per head than anywhere in Western Europe.

Actually, we eat more chicken than we do all fish put together and any other meat, with chicken overtaking red meat in 2016. Chicken is a growing industry for the UK as the fish industry shrinks, both domestically and for export. It has a big place in our homes and lives. It's already a much bigger industry both in terms of number of workers and percentage of GDP than fish—and the public response to the recent KFC chicken shortage showed what happens when people don’t get their boneless bucket.

The food pecking order

Famously, KFC uses a just-in-time supply chain to ensure produce arrives at their stores fresh, with less holding of ageing inventory. In the case of the infamous shortage, a change in distributor led to a breakdown in this chain. Franchisees, employees, shareholders and customers were all affected.

At the moment, many industries use this supply chain model, taking advantage of the single market and customs union to ensure friction-free logistics across the EU, but a chilled product like chicken is particularly vulnerable.

60 per cent of the UK’s agricultural exports and 70 per cent of its imports involve the EU. There is little or no domestic market for dark chicken meat, or more esoteric parts of the bird like necks and feet. We import chicken breast to meet public demand, and export these less desirable products. Brexit leaves our meat industry with problems for both.

Last month, Ed Balls and Peter Sands launched their Brexit working paper on the views of medium-sized businesses, co-authored with researchers from King’s College London and Harvard. At its launch, it became clear that issues go far beyond a hypothetical US free trade agreement requiring us to accept dodgy chlorinated chicken full of hormones. Try the MFN duty of 50-60 per cent on meat, and regular “KFC”-type events as lorries get stopped at the border.

Katie Doherty of the International Meat Trade Association told the audience: “Our consumers in the UK have become used to chilled just-in-time products. We aren’t self-sufficient and it’s not viable to be self-sufficient … we need to look to our European neighbours for meeting consumer demand.”

To get to the other side...

This is a particular problem—as with so many things Brexit-related—in Northern Ireland. Chicken producer Moy Park is the country’s largest employer, and a significant employer in the sector, accounting for 11750 of the 37300 poultry industry workers across the UK. (The sharp-eyed will spot nearly the same number of poultry employees at Moy Park as the total number of UK fishermen. Oh, and over 60 per cent of employees in the sector are rest-of-EU citizens.)

The Irish Republic is the biggest customer for UK poultry meat, with £68 million of exports in 2016. Border checks are a unique issue for the meat sector, involving veterinary checks and sending samples of meat away for testing. Currently meat moves as easily from an EU country to London as it does Scotland to Carlisle, or indeed between Dublin and Belfast, but non-EU imports face veterinary checks at the point of import.

As Doherty says in the Balls and Sands report: “Given the constraints of meats such as chilled poultry from Europe, which has a 2-14 day shelf-life, vets stopping consignments to take a micro sample of the meat to send to labs could take days or even more than a week with significant financial implications for business.” Not to mention significant implications for our snacking habits and our Sunday roast.

What would staying in the single market do for chicken? Remove the tariff barrier on products like chicken, reduce regulatory complexity, keep our exports competitive and ensure imports are affordable to meet our food needs after Brexit.

More of a zinger than Captain Birdseye was expecting.