London salmon smokehouse, H. Forman & Son, owner: “I see Brexit as a great opportunity for Britain”

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When your company has been around as long as Lance Forman’s has, you get to see a lot of changes. The owner of Britain’s oldest original salmon curer and the world’s oldest producer of smoked salmon has seen off fires, floods, and even a controversial compulsory purchase order. But he didn’t hold back when it came to the EU.

When Harry Forman arrived in east London from Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century, he pursued his trade of curing fish by importing salmon in barrels of brine from the Baltic. Contrary to popular belief salmon smoking in the UK started not in Scotland but in London. On discovering fresh Scottish salmon arriving in London at Billingsgate Fish Market, he developed the “London Cure.”

The Forman’s method of smoking salmon hasn’t changed in over 100 years.

The method involves salting the fish to draw the moisture out, thus preserving and concentrating the flavour, then smoking it lightly enough to form a seal to protect but that does not interfere with the flavour of the fish. It’s high end stuff which is why they have been supplying to luxury establishments stores like Harrods and Selfridges for over 100 years.

Like his great grandfather, fourth-generation Forman and owner Lance Forman knows quite a bit about salmon and the trade. And you can’t help but listen.

“We use Scottish salmon because of freshness – which is the most crucial thing – the fresh taste is so important. So we buy on spot and all the salmon must reach us within 48 hours,” he told SalmonBusiness.

But the avid Twitter user has another passion: Brexit.

Lance on the Brexit campaign trail, with prominent Vote Leave campaigner, Michael Gove.

“Business people are afraid of being pubic because they are probably going to offend half of their customers. A lot of them are too shy to go on camera and say what they think.” Luckily Mr Forman isn’t one of those people.

“I see Brexit as a great opportunity for Britain – our business has been in operation for 100 years – for all those years, Britain wasn’t even in the EU.”

Despite constant reports about the damaging effects of leaving the EU without a trade deal, Lance Forman looks forward with optimism to the day to the UK leaves, even with a hard Brexit, which he says is still Brexit.

Filling in an extra piece of paper is a doddle
“People get worried about everything. It’s just not a big deal if we don’t get a trade deal. It’s a bit like the Millennium bug,” he says referring to the Y2K crisis which was meant to create havoc around the world in the year 2000, but famously didn’t.

Brexit, like the Y2K crisis?

Mr Forman was actively involved in the Vote Leave campaign citing (amongst many other issues), the cost of EU-compliant packaging for his family’s smoked salmon business. “Spending tens of thousands to reprint packaging so that a pack of smoked salmon has a warning sign saying “contains fish” is typical of the petty bureaucracy that weighs down the European economy,” according to Lance.
“I can honestly say that having been in the EU hasn’t created any serious commercial advantages for our business – yeah there might have been some opportunities – but we are still doing more business on the export side outside the EU than in the EU. Our biggest export market now is the USA (we export to China which is potentially enormous). The hardest thing is finding a customer, making sure they are happy and making sure they pay the bill. Filling in an extra piece of paper is a doddle by comparison and you’re happy to do it, as you only have to do it when you’ve got the order,” he says.

PGI status
However this didn’t stop him from applying for, and winning, the EU’s most prized “protected geographical indication” status for the “London Cure Smoked Salmon”, putting the status of Forman’s smoked salmon alongside Champagne and Parmesan.

But it’s not really Europe (“which I love” he says), it’s the European Union, he has an issue with, more specially its bureaucracy and one-size-fits-all rules. One such example is when European sanitary regulations proposed rules saying that that all raw fish must be frozen to a temperature of at least -20C (-4F) for more than a day in order to kill parasites. Those proposals were relaxed, but not before angering a lot of sushi chefs who would no longer be able to advertise that they had the freshest fish.

“Only about 5% of business in the UK actually trade with the EU.”

“I thought we were going to have to freeze all our fish. We had been delivering salmon to all of Yo! Sushi’s restaurants. I wrote a letter to the EU asking how many portions of raw salmon had been served and how many illnesses from eating raw salmon had been reported? They couldn’t provide an answer. We continued the fight because it would have meant that no fresh smoked salmon could be produced legally either without freezing. We eventually won the battle, but had we not, the EU could have destroyed Britain’s quality smoked salmon industry!”

Brexit is about the little guy
“When you hear government talk about how the EU is helpful to business, they are normally talking about major international businesses – not small businesses like us. Only about 5% of business in the UK actually trade with the EU. 95% of them have no dealings with them whatsoever, such as hairdressers and printers. So why should they have to follow EU rules when they have no interest at all in the EU?”

“Large companies lobby Brussels to come up with rules usually to protect their businesses against competition. In the months leading up to the referendum a letter was published by The Times signed by the leaders of 36 FTSE 100 companies, supporting Britain remaining in the EU. In the year leading up to that letter, these huge corporations spent 20 million euros lobbying the EU and they received 120 million back in grants and subsidies. Whilst tax payers are struggling it’s wrong that they should have to subsidise multinational corporations. The system is skewed the little guys and against small business and it is the SMEs who employ most people in the UK. We need to rebalance.”

“What we’ve learnt is that change provides opportunity and the bigger the change, the bigger the opportunity.”

Recent history
Not that the journey has been easy for Lance Forman. The factory suffered from from a fire in 1998 which burnt down 2/3 of his factory. Then just two years later, the newly refurbished factory was flooded under 3 ft of water when the nearby river River Lea overflowed. Then in 2003, having spent two years building a new premises, he was forcibly evicted to make way for the bid for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Looking ahead at the uncertainty with Brexit, Lance Forman is characteristically unperturbed, saying:
“What we’ve learnt is that change provides opportunity and the bigger the change, the bigger the opportunity. Brexit is the biggest change for Britain in 40 years. If that’s not an amazing opportunity for our country, I don’t know what is. We should seize it with open arms.”