How a Yorkshire food importer is navigating the perfect storm

Jason Bull, CEO of Eurostar Commodities in Brighouse.Jason Bull, CEO of Eurostar Commodities in Brighouse.
Jason Bull, CEO of Eurostar Commodities in Brighouse.
As the nation prepares to see out 2021 with a heartfelt “good riddance”, there will be hopes, universally shared, that 2022 will bring something better. That the Covid winter will melt away, ushering in a spring of renewal, freedom and economic growth.

But food importer Jason Bull fears that those hopes will remain just that – hopes – and that Brexit, Covid and climate change make for a gloomy outlook, especially in his sector of food and drink.

“The last couple of years have been very, very difficult, to say the least,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “We’ve got a very good team here, which has helped, and we’ve got good supply chains and good suppliers. But it is a perfect storm. I hope it will calm down, but I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

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His prognosis is worth noting not least because, as much as anyone, he has finger on the pulse of the international food ingredients market, which means he knows about price trends even before the supermarkets do.

Bull’s company, Eurostar Commodities, imports more than 10,000 tonnes of raw materials a year, including flour, semolina and maize, and is the biggest supplier of sushi rice to the UK market. The Brighouse-based firm was set up in 1994 by his father, Philip, who has been described in one broadsheet as “the go-to guy for northern England’s chapati makers”. Since then it has grown considerably, and now turns over about £10m a year. Its customers include some of the UK’s biggest food manufacturers, who in turn supply all the nation’s major retailers.

Despite its growth trajectory, Eurostar was severely tested by the pandemic, managing to navigate a way through thanks to some canny planning. This summer, the company invested £600,000 in a new “clean-label”, gluten-free flour factory, making the leap from pure importer to importer/manufacturer.

Clean-label products are free from genetically-modified ingredients, artificial colours, additives, preservatives, or e-numbers, and it’s a fast-growing market.

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“We sell the gluten-free flours that we produce online direct-to-consumer, and that market went through the roof because people were staying at home, they were baking more, and they were buying online more because they didn’t want to go to the supermarket,” says Bull.

“It didn’t overtake the loss of turnover from hospitality, but it really did help us through the pandemic. As a business we’ve actually come out of it in quite a strong position.”

But that new direct-to-consumer online business was eaten into by another challenge, Brexit, which deprived it of its market in Germany and the Netherlands.

“That accounted for about 5 per cent of our turnover, so we’re having to look for distributors that can buy in bulk from us and distribute locally,” says Bull.

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The company buys a lot of its commodities from France, Italy, Belgium and Poland, and this trade has also been affected.

“There’s a lot more paperwork, more customs processes, more cost, longer lead-times. Trade with Ireland has become a bit of a nightmare,” he says.

“Freight costs have increased by about 15 per cent, and some of that is a direct impact of Brexit, because, now in Italy we have to go from the factory to a customs office, maybe 50 kilometres out of the way, to do all the paperwork – and then on to the dock. It’s the same with our suppliers. They’ve got more procedures and admin to deal with, so they’ve had to hire more staff to cope. That increases costs – which they then pass on to us.”

Despite these challenges, Bull says Eurostar can cope with Brexit (“mainly extra paperwork and some added costs”) and Covid (“we’re going to have to live with it”), but the big remaining shadow over everything is cast by climate change, which has already wreaked havoc in international food commodity markets. Drought in Canada and wet weather in Europe devastated this year’s durum wheat harvest, and prices nearly doubled as a result.

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“The change in weather is affecting crops around the world, and even if it doesn’t decimate the crop, it can have an impact on yield, on quality, on the microbiology,” says Bull. “We’ve had massive price increases on pretty much every product that we supply over the last six months – and a lot of it is down to climate change.

“The planet is heating up. That’s not going to change overnight, or go into reverse. I’d say the worst is yet to come.”

This week, the Office for National Statistics revealed that inflation had jumped ahead of City expectations, with the Consumer Prices Index (CPI) rising by 5.1 per cent in the 12 months to November 2021, to hit the highest rate since September 2011. It came as no surprise to Bull, who sees the mechanics of price rises every day.

“Our supplier in Italy told us this morning they want to put up the price of wheat flour – the kind used for pizzas – by another £100 a tonne. They’d already put it up by £100 a tonne a month ago, so it’s probably up by 45 per cent – and they’re talking about it rising even further in February.

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“You can only absorb so much of that as a business and then you’ve got to pass the rest on – and it’s going to filter down to the consumer. Food price inflation is going to go through the roof. There’s no way it’s going to be just 3 or 4 per cent – you’re talking probably 6, 7, 8 per cent over the next six months.

“I think we’re in for a tough couple of years, to be honest. And then depending on how climate change evolves, it may get worse.”

CV: Jason Bull

Jason Bull was born in Enfield, Greater London, and moved to Yorkshire soon afterwards.

He grew up in Halifax and went to The Brooksbank School in Elland.

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After A levels he started work at the Jobcentre, working in income support.

He left to go travelling for two-and-a-half years, working a ski season in New Zealand and selling mobile phones door-to-door in Australia.

In 2004, aged 21, he returned to Yorkshire and started work as a sales representative at Eurostar Commodities, a bulk ingredients importer which his father had founded in 1995.

Now a director of the business, he is in the process of taking the reins from his father, Philip Bull, who is planning to retire.

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