Could sanctions push Britain’s chippies down the pan?

He was so convinced of the importance of fish-and-chips in national harmony that he refused to allow British governments to ration the famous dish during both world wars. The classic meal, thought to be the inheritance of Sephardic Jewish immigrants to London’s East End from as far back as the 1600s, was even used as a code name by British paratroopers during the D-Day landings. 

Despite the explosion of new and more exotic dining options in modern Britain, we still love fish and chips. In 2019, the UK population forked out an average of £1.2 billion annually on the meal, with 22 per cent of Brits visiting a fish and chip shop at least once a week.

Yet despite Britain’s domestic propensity for the dish, it is hundreds of thousands of Russian seafood imports that keep its fish and chip shops afloat.

However, it seems hefty sanctions against Russia following its invasion of Ukraine- a conflict already sending fragile global prices soaring- could see the UK’s iconic meal go somewhat down the pan.


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Mid-march, the government announced that UK imports of Russian whitefish would soon be slammed with a hefty 35 per cent tariff, however, it is unclear when this will be officially rolled out after yesterday’s announcement that the sanctions would be postponed.

A spokesperson for Defra said the contrary. that the government “are imposing the most punishing sanctions ever on Russia following its unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine,” regardless of whether they plunge Britain’s chip shops into the deep end. They stressed that the government still “intend to introduce a 35 per cent tariff on imports of whitefish from Russia, subject to further work on the specific implications for the sector”, and that they “continue to speak with the industry body, the National Federation of Fish Friers, and other sector representatives about potential pressures as they navigate any changes.”

Recent UK wrangling aside: Whitefish prices have risen by 75% since October last year, and US sanctions on Russian produce are expected to increase the price of fish exported from the United States. elsewhere.

While the government claims it wishes to “cause maximum harm to Putin’s war machine while minimising the impact on UK businesses”, the hospitality industry’s reliance on foreign whitefish means it will be impossible to negate all impacts on both businesses and consumers.

In 2020, the UK imported 430,000 tonnes whitefish, almost half of which came from Russia. The UK also landed 47,000 tonnes cod and haddock, but most of this was exported. According to the National Federation of Fish Friers, Russia controls nearly half (45%) of world whitefish supplies. The regime imports between 40 and 60 percent of the whitefish consumed in the UK.

The raging conflict in Ukraine is not the only factor that will cause prices to rise for fish and chips shops throughout the country. After being temporarily reduced to 5% in June 2020, the VAT rate for hospitality will rise to 20% starting April 1. 

Disruption to seed cooking oil exports, of which both Russia and Ukraine are responsible for a combined majority of UK imports, also threatens Britain’s favourite fried pastime. Traditional chippies use beef or oil dripping for frying. However, shops in southern and eastern England and increasingly other parts of the UK use rapeseed and other vegetable oils.

Kim Matthews, commercial director at packaging firm Edible Oils, told the BBC this week: “At the moment, Ukrainian farmers should be sowing the seeds now for the harvest in October and November. Clearly, that’s not going to happen… we’re probably going to miss the season so we could be impacted for 12-18 months.”

Gary Lewis, president of the National Edible Oil Distributors’ Association has admitted that: “prices for rapeseed oil have risen 50-70 per cent since the attack,” adding that: “there’s a limited supply to cover all this demand so some shortfall will be expected.”

UKHospitality, an industry expert, estimated that the sector would experience 18% inflation at the end of the year end of MarchRecent business surveys have shown that the industry is facing a shocking 95% increase in energy bills across the board. There has also been a 17% rise in food and labour costs.

NFFF president Andrew Crook, who runs the Skippers of Euxton fish and chip shop in Chorley, Lancashire, stressed the combination of pressures on the industry, telling that: “We are experiencing price rises across the board but fish is currently grabbing the headlines. These are due to post-pandemic inflation in general, but we are just beginning to see the impact of the conflict on cooking oils prices.

While accepting that “it is difficult to control market forces,” Crook said that “the [government decision to]Businesses are feeling more pressure from the return to 20% VAT. Most of my members were in despair after the spring statement. They feel that no one is listening. Businesses without cash reserves are in serious trouble. Others, who have a little money in the bank, may soon run out of it. It is time to act now.

“I think long term we need support to encourage consumers to be a little more adventurous when it comes to seafood as we need to spread the burden across more species and we would certainly work with the government on that,” he went on.

Other organisations have highlighted that it is not solely economic pressures, but environmental ones, that could soon batter Britain’s chippies. Clara Johnston, fisheries policy manager at the Marine Conservation Society, who has this week released updated sustainability ratings for UK fisheries, said: “For a thriving industry, future food security and the health of our ocean, it’s crucial UK Governments seize the opportunity posed by the Joint Fisheries Statement and new Fisheries Management Plans to fix our fisheries.”

The group’s new analysis finds that there are 5 cod stocks found in the waters around the UK, all of which are suffering from the effects of environmental degradation or unsustainable fishing – or both. According to the group, UK cod and other shellfish species are being prevented from entering the UK supply chains by inability to demonstrate sustainable fishing methods. They call for a new, more sustainable fisheries regulation that is more in line with sustainability. This could reduce import dependence.

Whatever the nature of sanctions decided upon, it is clear that Britain’s fish and chip shops have a lot to wade through in the coming weeks and months. Even if British sanctions on Russian whitefish are delayed indefinitely, rising operation costs and floundering consumer confidence will surely leave a chunk of Britain’s chippy owners swimming against the tide to keep their businesses ticking over.