Food and drink industry relieved by Northern Ireland Protocol agreement

02 March 2023, 08:06 AM
  • This week, prime minister Rishi Sunak has agreed a deal with Northern Ireland to relax some Brexit rules and relieve some red tape for exporters
Food and drink industry relieved by Northern Ireland Protocol agreement

The new deal aims to significantly reduce the number of checks, creating two lanes for goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain. These are a green lane for goods that will remain in Northern Ireland, and a red lane for goods that may be sent to the EU. 

Products going through the green lane would see checks and paperwork scrapped, while red lane goods would still be subject to checks.

Bans on certain products like chilled sausages entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be removed, while Northern Ireland would also no longer have to follow certain EU rules, for example on VAT and alcohol duties.

Good news for British producers
The deal spells good news for producers and distributors in mainland Britain, as the proposed green lane will allow faster and less costly movement of goods to and from Northern Ireland.

As Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation, told Speciality Food, “We are pleased that an agreement has been reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Any deal to improve the movement of goods is welcome, after the significant uncertainty food and drink manufacturers have faced over the past two years.”

In particular, this will benefit chilled and frozen exporters. Rupert Ashby, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation, explained, “The settlement reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol is good news for businesses throughout the frozen food supply chain which are looking forward to more efficient trade relations within the UK and to the EU.

“For frozen food producers, distributors and retailers which have faced difficulties since the Withdrawal Agreement, this marks the beginning of a positive new chapter.

“Frozen food has become an increasingly popular choice for consumers looking for high quality and affordable options in their weekly shop and I know that our members will seek to reach more of the Northern Ireland and EU markets through this renewed opportunity.”

Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, added, “Under the Protocol, cold chain operators working between Great Britain and Northern Ireland have had to contend with great uncertainty, frequent disruption, and hugely increased bureaucratic burden and expense. Today’s announcement is a very welcome step towards a much more efficient and sustainable system with the potential to remove most of the current practical problems, which will be better for consumers and businesses alike.

“There are important details that government will need to get right, such as paperwork requirements for the green lane and support for businesses in transitioning to the new systems, but today is a crucial and long-awaited milestone towards allowing the food industry to get on with the job at hand.”

More clarification needed
While the agreement is certainly a positive step forward after a tumultuous few years of Brexit chaos, exporters are still waiting for further clarification. 

Rod Addy, director general at the Provision Trade Federation, explained, “The requirement for special labelling for goods destined for Northern Ireland, designating them ‘not for EU’ will entail some disruption for food and drink producers. However, promised transitional support from government for this is good news, as is the phased implementation of this labelling, from 1 October 2023 through to 2025 on current timescales. 

“Initial indications are that the deal has widespread political support, which will be crucial in getting it over the line – any significant opposition could give pause for thought. The Stormont Break principle allows the Northern Ireland assembly some autonomy to veto EU single market laws.

“However, as with so many things over the last few years, how the deal is implemented over the coming months will be fundamental to its early success. For this to happen, Whitehall and the UK Parliament will need to work closely with all parts of the trade to deliver pragmatic solutions that work for everyone.”

But Roddy warns that the trials and tribulations of Brexit are far from over - as the current food shortages have evidenced - and the food industry should still be wary. “We must also remember that while positive progress has been made over the past few days, Brexit is by no means done and hard work still lies ahead on the technical detail of EU-UK trade. Areas such as triangular trade, where EU products exported to the UK cannot in some cases be re-exported to the EU, and the target operating model for UK border controls remain big issues.”

Relief will come from more clarification on how exactly the new system will work, and exporters will be waiting to hear further news on this. “We look forward to seeing the details of this agreement, and how it will provide a pragmatic and business-friendly solution that will ensure Northern Irish consumers can continue to enjoy the full choice of quality UK products, without facing higher prices”, Dominic concluded.

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