Fish and chip shops in UK battered by Russia sanctions

Prices for Britain's favourite fish – cod and haddock – up 75% in 2022

One third of Britain's fish and chip shops are in danger of going bust this year due to a 'perfect storm' of rising prices, an insolvency company has predicted. Reuters
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Fish and chips in hand, Prime Minister Boris Johnson once promised to "build back batter" from the pandemic.

Successive blows have pushed the British institution to the brink since that pledge. Sanctions have disrupted trade with Russia, an important source of fish imports. Sunflower oil supplies from Ukraine have dried up. Lockdowns reduced the number of people on the country's high streets. Brexit, which took place in early 2020, added to inflationary pressures on the sector. And a shortage of labour has driven up wages.

New figures show a third of fish and chip shops are at risk of going bust this year due to a "perfect storm" of price pressures, according to insolvency firm Company Debt. In only one year, wholesale prices for Britain's favourite fish – cod and haddock – are up 75 per cent, sunflower oil is up 60 per cent and flour 40 per cent.

Nationwide inflation reached a 40-year peak of 9 per cent in April, the highest in the G7, and is projected to rise further. British consumers are more pessimistic than peers in Europe, leading to criticism of both government and Bank of England efforts to keep a lid on the cost of living.

Cod and chips in a popular shop in West Drayton, Greater London now costs £9.50, compared to £7.95 a year ago.

In the southern English seaside town of Swanage, customers said Britain's inflation problem meant making hard choices.

"It's all right for me to go in there and get one portion for myself, but that was £11 just for one person," said Paula Williams, 66, a carer from Weymouth, on a bench outside the Fish Plaice shop.

"When you've got a group of five or six, that's probably more expensive than going to a restaurant."

Russian fish feeds Britain

Battered fish and fried chips, the chunky equivalent of fries in the United States, have fuelled people in Britain since the combination was invented 160 years ago.

The meal is such a staple that unlike other food in Britain, it was not rationed during the world wars. Chippies, with their distinctive smell of oil and vinegar, remain a presence in most towns.

Some of the recent difficulties for fish and chip shops began after Brexit, distant-waters trawler company UK Fisheries said, estimating that the amount of Arctic cod Britain is allowed to catch in 2022 reduced to about 40 per cent of what it was before leaving the European Union.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has driven up fuel and electricity prices, further increasing the cost of catching and frying fish. The war has sent cooking oil, fertiliser and flour prices higher too.

Cod and haddock are sourced in the Barents Sea, north of Norway and Russia, and the war has heightened uncertainty over those supplies.

In March, the British government listed Russian white fish as among goods to be hit with a 35 per cent tariff as part of sanctions in response to the invasion. It has paused the move, for now, while the effects are investigated.

A trader adjusts her display of seabass at Billingsgate Fish Market in London. EPA

Sunflower oil is the principle agricultural commodity that the UK imports from Ukraine and the government says it is working to substitute it with other vegetable oils: for instance, receiving extra rapeseed shipments from Australia after its strong harvest.

A representative for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs said it was "working closely with industry, including the National Federation of Fish Friers, to mitigate the challenges that they are facing".

However, the federation said fish and chip shops were facing their biggest ever crisis.

"I'm getting daily phone calls from people that are worried that they're going to go out of business," NFFF president Andrew Crook told Reuters.

'Oil must stay hot'

Data from Springboard shows footfall on British high streets is 15 per cent down on 2019. Fish and chip shops are more exposed than some bigger businesses, Yael Selfin, chief economist at KPMG UK told Reuters, because they lack buying power to strike better deals when global prices rise.

"We are expecting consumers and households to reassess what they're spending on and potentially cut down," Ms Selfin said.

In his smart, recently refurbished shop in West Drayton, Bally Singh is struggling to keep the tills ringing for the British tradition, with prices skyrocketing for fish, potatoes, cooking oil and even the flour used for the batter.

Mr Singh, owner of Hooked Fish and Chips, is navigating the economic fallout of the Ukraine war, the coronavirus pandemic and Brexit.

"Fish prices have gone up extortionately; oil prices have gone up extortionately; and everything across the whole spectrum that we sell has gone up extortionately," he said.

Located in a suburb in Mr Johnson's own parliamentary constituency, Mr Singh is looking to cut costs and has added cheaper hake and pollock to the menu. But the energy intensive cookers have to stay on.

"If nobody's coming in, we're losing money and we need to keep the oil hot," he said.

Updated: May 26, 2022, 2:12 PM