Spain’s fruit and vegetable exports to the UK have suffered “no fundamental disruption” from Brexit, despite shortages of salads in British supermarkets and additional costs for exporters, the country’s agriculture minister said.
Echoing the UK government’s explanation, Luis Planas said the lack of cucumbers, lettuce and tomatoes in stores partly reflected freezing temperatures in southern Spain, which had slowed production in recent weeks. But he told the Financial Times that the shortage was “an anomaly, not a trend”.
For Spanish exporters to the UK, Brexit has meant new “burdensome administrative procedures that come with additional expenses and additional difficulties,” Planas said. “Not being in the EU single market comes at a significant cost.”
But despite that, he said “things are going well” overall in Spain’s post-Brexit food trade with the UK, including its role as the country’s biggest single supplier of fresh vegetables.
Trade data shows that while the value of vegetable shipments from Spain has increased since the Brexit trade regime took effect in early 2021, the volume has fallen.
Planas acknowledged that smaller-scale producers of wine, cheese and olive oil have had difficulty accepting higher costs. “Some have honestly told me they have stopped shipping to the UK,” he said.
Others have reduced the frequency of deliveries to reduce the costs and administrative burden associated with each individual shipment, leaving UK buyers with less flexibility to respond to increases in demand or new trends.
“You can’t do ‘just in time’. From a commercial point of view, it brings more difficulties”, said Planas. “When you are in the EU, you can easily send a small order to a customer. Now our small exporters – I am thinking of exporters of artisanal cheese or wine – tell me that they group shipments so that, instead of weekly, they ship monthly, bimonthly or quarterly.”
Trade data does not point to a clear trend in Spanish sales to the UK. The value of Spanish cheese imports from Britain hit a record €43m last year as volumes rose, but wine shipments have declined in both volume and value in 2022.
Fruits and vegetables are sold on a much larger scale, with the UK importing around €1bn of Spanish produce in each category every year since 2020 and Spain accounting for around 30% of all EU production.
While fruit shipments to the UK have declined over the past two years, the rising value of vegetable sales means the country has maintained its ranking as Spain’s second-biggest market for tomatoes and cucumbers, after Germany.
Planas said he had an “assurance message” about the current shortage of salads in the UK. “There is no fundamental interruption. There are some problems that occurred due to a few weeks of low temperatures in the producing areas, but the supply is guaranteed”.
The agriculture ministry said that as temperatures rise with the changing seasons, the situation will be “regularized”. The crucial agricultural regions hit by the cold in southern Spain were Almeria and Murcia.
Trade between the countries has been facilitated, Planas said, by the UK’s repeated delays in introducing sanitary and phytosanitary checks on food entering the country after Brexit.
These checks, which include health certificates and in some cases physical inspections, are already being carried out on UK goods entering the EU, but have been delayed four times in the opposite direction and are due to start in late 2023.
The UK’s second largest supplier of vegetables is the Netherlands, another EU country. But Planas noted that since Brexit, the UK has signed trade deals with Australia, New Zealand and also Morocco, a North African country that has rapidly climbed the rankings to become the UK’s third largest supplier of vegetables.
Planas said: “The UK is one of our key markets from an agri-food perspective and we are very keen to see this good relationship preserved.”
Additional reporting by Emiko Terazono and Judith Evans in London