A report by the National Assembly’s Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee is calling on the Welsh Government to develop a clear Welsh identity for the food and drink industry.
In its inquiry on the Welsh food and drink industry post-Brexit, the Committee has been looking at concerns about branding and marketing, funding and the EU migrant workforce which is central to the Welsh food industry.
Protecting a Welsh brand
The Committee is calling for a strong Welsh identity to be developed, to sell the story of Wales as a producer of high quality food. This will help the industry meet the challenges it faces after Brexit.
The Committee was told that it appears that Brexit has had a negative impact on the reputation of the UK in many countries, particularly in Europe. In these markets, it will be important to maintain a ‘Welsh’, rather than ‘UK’ identity after Brexit. The Committee accepts that the UK identity can be a means of gaining access to new, global markets, but the Welsh identity should be the focus in markets that are already established.
The EU’s Protected Food Names, also known as Geographical Indications (GI), scheme was highlighted as a key selling point for the food sector in Wales. It has been estimated that Protected Food Name status increases the value of a product. Hybu Cig Cymru - Meat Promotion Wales suggested that 25% of the growth in lamb exports between 2003 and 2012 was directly attributable to the GI status of Welsh lamb.
There are currently 16 Welsh products registered under the EU scheme, including Welsh lamb, Welsh beef, Anglesey Sea Salt (Halen Môn) and Traditional Welsh Caerphilly.
The labour market post-Brexit
Access to labour is a key challenge for the food and drink industry and the Committee heard that businesses currently are heavily reliant on EU migrant workers. Proposed changes to immigration policy post-Brexit would see a much more restrictive system for low skilled EU migrant workers. Food producers told the committee they were worried about the potential impact of these changes which could lead to a significant shortage of workers within their industries.
This was a particular concern for the meat processing industry, where it is estimated that over 50% of the workforce in some large processing facilities are migrant workers, mainly from the EU. The Committee hear estimates that 95% of vets working in the meat hygiene sector are from overseas. The tourism and hospitality industry is also highly reliant on EU migrant workers.
The Committee is calling on the Welsh Government to set out its position on the UK Government’s proposed new single immigration system and explain the impact it expects these proposals to have on the food and drink industry.
Mike Hedges AM, Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee said:
“We are proud of our food and drink industry in Wales, our producers are a crucial part of the economy and the culture of our nation. Protecting and enhancing a clear Welsh brand is important for the future.
“We know from consumer surveys that 8 out of 10 Welsh shoppers would always buy Welsh produce if the price is right. We need to make sure that it is easy to identify and access Welsh produce, both domestically and internationally. The challenges presented by Brexit makes this even more urgent.
“It is unclear how the Welsh Government intends to respond to the impact of restrictions on access to EU migrant workers on these industries in the immediate post-Brexit period and the shorter term.
“Our committee has heard some helpful but concerning evidence from industry representatives and we’re calling on the Welsh Government to respond. Businesses need reassurance that the Welsh and UK Governments are responding to their concerns and have a clear strategy for the future.”
Gwyn Howells of Hybu Cig Cymru – Meat Promotion Wales, added:
“Immediate, seamless protection for the Welsh Lamb and Welsh Beef brands post Brexit is essential for the red meat industry.
“The impact of Brexit on labour supply in processing facilities could be quite significant given the reliance on migrant workers. In some large processing facilities in Wales, over 50% of the workforce are migrant workers, mainly from the EU. We need a future immigration system based on an ability to find work and will cover not only the skilled workforce but the non-skilled workforce.
“It will be extremely difficult to replace EU migrant workers with indigenous workers, who seem unwilling to work in abattoirs and meat-cutting plants. Where there have been similar issues in the Republic of Ireland, they introduced of a scheme to attract workers from South American countries to processing plants. The UK Government might need to consider the introduction of a similar scheme.”
The Committee heard from a wide range of representatives of the food and hospitality sectors during its inquiry, including Meat Promotion Wales, the Food and Drink Wales Industry Board, Wales Tourism Alliance and UK Hospitality Cymru.