25 January 2021, 08:14 AM
  • Warnings that lorry traffic at Britain’s ports may be on the rise could spell continued disruption for the food and drink sector
Is more Brexit border chaos on the way?

Britain’s food industry has had a bumpy start to 2021 as retailers, hospitality firms and producers were faced with new rules and regulations when importing or exporting goods to and from the European Union.

The red tape has caused delays and difficulties sourcing products across the food sector – and the latest reports show that more disruption may be on the way.

The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) has warned that a rise in shipments in the coming weeks could worsen issues at the border. “For the first two weeks of January most companies deliberately cut the trade they do with the EU and Northern Ireland down to a very low level (on average 20% of normal volumes),” the group said.

“This was so they could tentatively test out the new system. But even at these low volumes, there have been catastrophic delays for perishable products.” Fresh meat, fish and seafood have been the hardest hit by delays as their deliveries are extremely time critical.

“If Continental supermarkets are unable to have products delivered the way they need them to be, this trade will simply be lost as EU customers abandon UK suppliers and source product from European processors,” warned Nick Allen, CEO of BMPA. “Members are already being told by their EU customers that they’ll be looking to Spain and Ireland to buy product from now on.”

This comes as The Times reports that projections from the Cabinet Office expect cross-Channel freight to rise rapidly. An EU diplomat told The Times that the EU could ease the friction at the border if the UK abandons plans for deregulation.

According to the BMPA, customs declarations for shipments going to Dublin Port alone have increased from an average of 5,480 per day last year to an expected 164,382 per day in 2021. “Multiply that across all our export borders and the magnitude of the problem becomes apparent,” the group says.

A spokesperson for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) told Speciality Food that as trade volumes increase, there is a greater likelihood that other sectors of the food and drink industry will be impacted by disruption at ports and borders.

“We continue to liaise regularly with the UK governments and EU authorities to ensure they are aware of any issues arising, and to seek quick resolutions. As each other’s largest trading partner, it is in the best interests of both the UK and the EU to ensure that these new arrangements work, and that trade in food and drink can continue to flow with as little friction as possible,” the spokesperson said.

Paul Hargreaves, CEO of Cotswold Fayre aired the industry’s concerns about the complications from Brexit in a recent letter to his MP, Alok Sharma, which was shared with Speciality Food.

“Whilst most of our business is within the UK, a small but growing percentage of the business has been until 2021 in the island of Ireland,” Paul wrote. “With the extra administration and charges incurred by Brexit, this business is sadly no longer viable for several reasons:

    • “Irish retailers have lost all confidence in bringing goods over from the UK – our largest customer for fresh products in Ireland cancelled all chilled deliveries in December.
    • “The charges for processing goods are prohibitive for us. As these companies charge per line of an invoice and we are shipping directly to retailers a broad range of products with up to 150 lines per invoice with only one or two cases per line, the cost of processing is close to our gross profit.
    • “Whilst we stock and distribute primarily British products, a number of our food and drink products are made in Europe, despite being branded for the UK, and, as a result, these will now incur duty due to ‘rules of origin’ making our business in Ireland even less attractive. Understandably the Irish retailers are expecting us to pay these charges as we are the ones who have left the EU not them.”

He continued: “We are not alone in facing an imminent loss of business due to Brexit and the problem is exaggerated in the food and drink sector due to the low margin nature and relatively small shipments compared to other industries.”

The BMPA is calling for a modernisation and digitisation of the current customs and certification system. “The existing paper-based system is a relic from the last century and simply not fit for purpose. It was never designed to cope with the kind of integrated, just-in-time supply chain we have built up over the last 40 years, and if not fixed quickly it will be the thing that starts to dismantle the European trade British companies have fought so hard to win”.

Unless a solution to the current delays is found, disruption will likely continue for the food and drink industry for the foreseeable future.

 

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