UK food and drink exports have slumped by almost GBP2bn (US$2.75bn) from pre-Covid levels, according to data from trade body The Food and Drink Federation.

The FDF, which represents food and soft-drink manufacturers operating in the UK, said the decline was due to a sharp drop in sales to the EU, linked to the pandemic and to Brexit.

In the first half of 2021, the value of UK food and drink exports was GBP9.2bn, down 17.3% on the same period in 2019.

Compared to the opening six months of last year, sales 4.5% lower.

However, sales to non-EU countries were up 13% in the first half of 2021, accounting for 46.6% of all UK food and drink exports during the period, driven by shipments to China, Singapore, Australia, Japan and the Gulf region.

The increase means non-EU exports are now almost back to pre-Covid levels, the FDF said.

In Central and South America, UK sales to some countries have doubled since H1 2020. The fastest-growing major export markets in the region were Colombia (+142.6%), Mexico (+111.2%), Chile (+105.4%) and Brazil (+87.2%).

Demand for UK goods in those countries was driven by a recovery in sales of whisky and vegetable oils, supported by increased orders for other products growing rapidly from a much lower baseline, the FDF said.

Turning to the EU export market, it said: “A combination of the ongoing impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic and new barriers to trade resulting from the new trading arrangements, have led to a fall in exports to the EU of more than a quarter since H1 2019.

“Exports to nearly all EU member states fell significantly, including a loss of more than GBP0.5bn in sales to Ireland, while sales to Germany, Spain and Italy are each down around a half since H1 2019.”

Meanwhile, imports from the EU were “particularly badly impacted by the pandemic and the new trading relationship, falling nearly 15% since 2019, a loss of GBP2.4bn,” the FDF noted.

However, imports from non-EU markets increased during this period.

The industry body added imports from the EU are likely to deteriorate further in 2022 after the UK’s full border controls are in place. Products of animal origin have already been heavily impacted, with a large fall in imports of pork (-19.6%), cheese (-17.6%) and chicken (-17.9%).

Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the FDF, said: “The return to growth in exports to non-EU markets is welcome news, but it doesn’t make up for the disastrous loss of GBP2bn in sales to the EU. It clearly demonstrates the serious difficulties manufacturers in our industry continue to face and the urgent need for additional specialist support.

“At the same time, we are seeing labour shortages across the UK’s farm-to-fork food and drink supply chain, resulting in empty spaces on UK shop shelves, disruptions to deliveries and decreased production. Unless steps are taken to address these issues, the ability of businesses to fulfil vital export orders will be impacted.”