The boss of a Cheshire cheese firm has told of his despair over Brexit after an unexpected meeting with the environment minister Victoria Prentis resulted in advice to look at the US and Canada markets.
Simon Spurrell, the co-founder of the Cheshire Cheese Company, was phoned “out of the blue” for an online meeting with the minister after he embarked on a personal crusade involving nearly 100 media interviews in the UK and the EU about his post-Brexit plight.
He says the past three months have been among the worst in his career, with a lucrative EU business brought to a halt because of the extra costs and paperwork caused by a hard Brexit.
Spurrell has been been left with a £250,000 hole in his export trade with Europe but says that Prentis told him in a meeting on Tuesday there was nothing she could do to ease the barriers because the extra paperwork, including health certificates for each consignment of cheese, were mandatory under EU rules.
Sales of his £25 to £30 pack of cheeses to individuals were growing and he had planned a £1m warehouse in Macclesfield to fulfil orders.
But under the new rules each parcel needs to be accompanied by a health certificate costing £180, making low-value sales unviable.
The environment minister and her aides suggested he pursue business in “emerging markets” across the Atlantic where no such barriers apply but he explained that the delivery costs were prohibitive.
“It was a fairly useless conversation as a whole,” he said.
“We have had a flood of people offering anything from: ‘Come to our town in Lithuania, Poland, France, Hungary, we’ll help you set up, we’ve got the resources,’ to British in the EU saying: ‘We’ve got a lock-up you can store your cheese here if you want,,” said Spurrell.
“They think there’s an opportunity to get employment in their town, but that’s exactly what the British government should be doing.”.
Back home, he has been offered help from the Department for International Trade with “emerging markets” but says what he wanted was help with salvaging his EU business.
Data released on Monday showed a dramatic collapse of exports of whisky, cheese and chocolate to the EU in January.
A spokesperson for Defra said Spurrell’s reflection of the meeting was different to theirs and while the minister was unable to help him on the health certificate requirements, she “highlighted our desire to help the Cheshire Cheese Company where possible”.
The department also committed to sending him “further information on possible trading solutions – including on groupage [multiple consignments per truck], which some dairy businesses are using to export products successfully”.
But Spurrell says while they were trying to help he sees no way of salvaging his consumer sales business in the EU.
“The last three months have been thoroughly unpleasant because of Brexit. It’s been terrible, it’s been one of the most stressful periods of my business life,” he said.
“During the meeting, we were offered the full support of the government via the DIT and trade initiatives with Liz Truss [the trade secretary]. This was to help us to access the new emerging markets for the new trade deals being negotiated. This as it stands is our only positive way forwards, to help us replace the lost revenue from the EU market.”
His story is emblematic of the experience of many small businesses hit by extra paperwork.
He said he was prepared for barriers on EU sales to his wholesale business but there had been no warning there would be no exemption for direct consumer sales as there is in the US and Canada.
“This came as an almighty shock, like a rear-end hit in car accident because I wasn’t expecting it,” he said.
Asked if there was any chance of an exemption in the post-Brexit rules in the consumer business in the UK, he said Prentis replied: “None.”
“I explained [to her] that my fundamental fear is that the large expense of setting up a mirrored operation [in the EU], could all be for nothing with the increasingly hostile environments between the two sides.”
One option was to send truckloads of cheese to France or another EU country and fulfil orders from there.
But he has decided against that “because even the paperwork for wholesale shipment of goods is so onerous that it will be a full-time job for the EU exports side of the business, adding even more costs”.