As families across the UK stockpile food ahead of Brexit, a Yorkshire firm is selling hundreds of emergency kits as concern about ‘no deal’ grows. Dean Kirby reports.
The bookshelves at Helena’s garden flat are chock full of tinned food – chopped tomatoes, sweetcorn, beans and mushy peas. With less than two months to go before Brexit, the 27-year-old charity worker has become one of the growing number of people across the UK who are stockpiling food.
Prepping – once thought to be the province of camouflage-clad survivalists in Montana – has become an unexpected feature of British life as the nation risks a no-deal exit from Europe.
In towns and cities across the country, some families have begun gathering in food amid concerned that shops could run out of basic supplies if imports are disrupted on March 29.
“I used to think the Preppers in the US waiting for the zombie apocalypse were crazy, so I’m shocked to feel that I have to do this,” says Helena, who asked for her full name to be withheld, and is also stockpiling food for her pet dog Charlie.
She adds: “I’m just being sensible. I’m only buying food that I’d eat anyway. To be honest, I’ve bought more food for my dog than for me.
“Pet food will be well down the list of priorities if there are problems at the border.
“If nothing goes wrong, I’ll munch through the food I have saved, but I don’t trust the Government with this. It’s an insurance policy.”
Nearly one third of food consumed in the UK comes from the EU and the percentage of imports increases in spring when Britons source 90 per cent of lettuce and 70 per cent of soft fruit from member states on the continent.
Supermarkets including Asda, Waitrose and Sainsbury’s joined fast-food outlets including McDonald’s and KFC in warning MPs last week that crashing out of Europe will result in “significant” disruption to their supply chains.
“We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no-deal Brexit,” the letter read.
The said that it was particularly concerned about the supply of fruit and vegetables.
“As this produce is fresh and perishable, it needs to be moved quickly from farms to our stores,” it said. “This complex, ‘just in time’ supply chain will be significantly disrupted in the event of no deal.”
The Road Haulage Association has also previously warned that the “prospect of a future without a Brexit deal looks extremely bleak”, with 10,000 lorries crossing the Dover Strait each day.
Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, has also told the health and social care committee, that medicines “will be prioritised” over food if a no-deal Brexit disrupts supplies, although the Department for Exiting the European Union has said “people do not need to stockpile”. Meanwhile in response to the letter from retailers, a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said plans were in place to keep goods moving in the event of a hard Brexit. The spokesman added that the nation’s food security would continue to be high whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal.
But while most are preparing for Brexit by buying a few extra tins in the weekly shop to avoid panic buying, some are taking their concerns to survivalist extremes – with the help of a Leeds company.
City businessman James Blake runs a company called Emergency Food Storage UK. His customers include people in remote villages and owners of end of the world bunkers and Blake says he has sold more than 600 emergency Brexit boxes in just one month.
The kits, which retail at £295, contain 60 meals including pasta bolognese and beef stew plus 48 portions of freeze-dried meat with a lifespan of 25 years, along with a water filter and a fire starter.
“We’ve even sold some of the boxes in Europe, which was a surprise,” says Mr Blake.
He denies the company is scaremongering, adding: ”We’re a preparedness company. That’s what we do.
“People buy car insurance and home insurance. This is food insurance. If nothing goes wrong, you can put the box under the stairs until the next eventuality.”
Blake is not alone in his attitude. Facebook groups including one called 48% Preppers, which has more than 7,800 members, are sharing tips on how to how to stockpile.
Andrew Rawson, who has been habitually storing food after his rural village in Northern England was hit by a snowstorm has even published a book on how to stockpile goods, with many in the region still remembering the panic buying that emptied shops during the fuel crisis of 2000.
One woman has shared details on Mumsnet of the items her husband has locked away in his “Brexit cupboard” – adding that her children have sneaked inside looking for chocolate.
“They were disappointed to find numerous bags of rice and pasta. Seems he has got his priorities mixed up,” she joked.
The concerns are backed by experts who say a no-deal scenario, which MPs voted to avoid on last week, could lead to shortages.
“The harder and sharper Brexit is, the more risk there is to our just-in-time food system,” says Professor Tim Benton, an expert in food systems from the University of Leeds, speaking from a conference in California.
“The just-in-time nature means, especially for fresh produce which we cannot stockpile, that food essentially comes into the country at the speed it is sold.
“So any slowing of food in means slowing of deliveries to shops and less food on shelves.”
He adds: “There is a fragility to our food system that small combinations of events can interact to cause rapidly escalations in impacts.
“So, if we have new controls, longer inspections, delays and interruptions, and if people see the risk and start to buy more, the shelves could become very empty.”
But even many of those who are concerned about the impact on food supplies on March 29 say there is no need to head down the hardcore survivalist route.
“It’s really just about ensuring you have enough baked beans and bog roll,” says Jo Elgarf, a Brexit prepper who lives in London with her husband and three children and is a moderator on the 48% Preppers group.
“We’re normal people. We’re just worried.
“In the 1970s, people would bulk buy food and today people are more likely to buy something for their dinner on the way home.
“It’s better to buy a few extra bits each week and that way it can avoid people panic buying at the end of March.
“I’ve been buying store cupboard stuff – porridge oats, pasta, lentils.
“There’s no point in buying corned beef if you don’t like it.”
Top firms step up stockpiling efforts
Major companies including Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Unilever are among those stockpiling goods as they prepare for the possibility of a no deal Brexit and disruption at ports affecting their supply chains.
New figures show manufacturers are now stockpiling at the fastest rate since records began.
The Markit/CIPS UK manufacturing purchasing managers’ index showed stock-building increased at the sharpest pace in the survey’s 27-year history last month.
Rob Dobson, director at IHS Markit, said: “The start of 2019 saw UK manufacturers continue their preparations for Brexit. Buying activity was stepped up to mitigate against potential supply-chain disruptions in coming months.”