UK F&B businesses urged to go global as demand for Western produce soars

UK food and drink exports to Europe, Asia and the Americas have risen rapidly despite the post-Brexit threat to the industry’s workforce

The country’s food and drink industry is booming thanks to rising global demand for UK manufactured produce, according to a new report from Santander and EEF.

Despite concerns over the impact of Brexit on the sector’s workforce – a third of which are non-UK EU nationals – the report revealed that the value of exports made by the sector surpassed a record £20bn in 2016.

Also in that year, UK products were exported to 217 international markets, marking the largest number of regions reached by the sector yet.

The research also found the UK to be the second-largest exporter of beverages in the world due to its specialism in alcoholic drinks, highlighting the potential for start-ups and small businesses to capitalise on worldwide demand for UK tipples. Whisky, for example, generated a whopping £4bn in overseas sales in 2016.

According to the report, Europe is the sector’s biggest destination, receiving 60% of UK food and drink exports. It was also shown to be a growing market, having expanded by 85% over the past 20 years.

However, exports to Asia and Oceania and the Americas have experienced the most rapid growth, rising by a staggering 155% and 154% respectively since 1996. Products entering the Middle East and Africa have also grown by 109% in that time.

With the report’s statement that only one in five UK food and drink businesses currently export, small businesses and start-ups which manufacture such products are encouraged to take advantage of burgeoning global demand, and aim to fuel their growth by entering international markets.

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Along with the rise in exporting, the report identified several other factors which, if capitalised on, could have the potential to drive growth in the industry.

These include growing consumer demand for healthier food; an increase in research and development; more smart packaging and better sustainability measures; and the rising popularity of online grocery shopping.

The report also highlighted the difficulties that the sector is facing, with retaining access to a skilled workforce following Brexit as the primary concern. However, the government’s announcement last month that EU workers who have lived in the UK for five years will be able to apply for permanent residency may allay some of these worries.

Nicola Thomas, head of the food and drink sector at Santander Corporate & Commercial, said:

“The UK’s strong reputation for the high standards of its food, safety, animal welfare and sustainability in countries such as China and India, combined with a growing and affluent middle class in these regions, and the focus on western-style produce presents an opportunity for UK food and drink manufacturers to enter relatively untapped markets.”

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