What the latest NI Protocol extension means for the food sector

02 July 2021, 07:50 AM
  • The Government has been locked in a row with the European Union over the movement of chilled meats such as sausages from Great Britain to Northern Ireland
What the latest NI Protocol extension means for the food sector

The European Commission has granted a three-month extension to the sale of sausages from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, until 30th September.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has seen Northern Ireland remain in the EU’s customs union and single market, chilled meats are not allowed to enter the single market from any non-EU country, like Britain, due to health and safety reasons.

Cabinet minister Lord Frost said the agreement was a “positive first step” but a permanent solution is still needed. “Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy products they have bought from Great Britain for years.”

“This is a very clear sign that the Protocol has to be operated in a pragmatic and proportionate way,” he continued. “The chilled meats issue is only one of a very large number of problems with the way the Protocol is currently operating, and solutions need to be found with the EU to ensure it delivers on its original aims: to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom, and protect the EU’s single market for goods.”

European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “We have spared no effort in trying to mitigate some of the challenges that have arisen in the implementation of the protocol.”

A “red herring”

While the extension of the grace period offers some relief for the chilled meats sector, industry experts warned that the two sides are no closer to a deal. “Three more months of the same standoff is not going to boost trader confidence or make anyone’s lives genuinely easier,” said Cold Chain Federation chief executive Shane Brennan. “Many GB food businesses have already made the decision to stop supplying into NI, and many others have restructured their supply chains. Northern Ireland is a market that most small English, Welsh and Scottish food producers can’t afford to serve, and today’s announcements won’t change that.”

Meanwhile, the British Meat Processors Association called the issue a red herring. “We know that it is no more than a stay of execution and doesn’t fundamentally solve the much bigger issue of the comprehensive Sanitary and Phytosanitary certification that will be needed from 1st October when easements for the retail supply chains will end,” the group said.

Indeed, Aodhán Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, agreed that while it was positive to see cooperation between the UK and EU, the extension was a “peripheral matter,” and that there was a serious issue on the horizon for many food businesses. “The most pressing issue is the fate of the thousands of food products moving daily from GB to NI, which will be subject to extensive controls when that grace period ends in October. We are no closer to a decision by both sides on this,” he said.

“There is a frustration felt across business. We can see the technical solutions that are possible, such as a trusted trader scheme, yet there does not seem to be the political will to deliver them,” he continued. “We need both sides to live up to their commitments and find a pragmatic solution to ensure NI consumers continue to get access to both the choice and affordability in the food they need. Yet again the clock is ticking.”

What’s next?

The makers of sausages and other chilled meats will have to wait and see whether the UK and EU can agree a solution to the so-called ‘sausage wars’ over the next three months. However, some have decided to change up their businesses to avoid the headache. Wilfred Emmanuel Jones, founder of The Black Farmer, told the BBC he had decided to export frozen premium sausages to the EU.

“There’s a really big opportunity to do premium frozen sausages for the continent,” he told the BBC. “One problem we have with sausages is that in this country at least, anything frozen is seen as down-market, not a premium product.”

For other food retailers and producers who ship goods to Northern Ireland, it is still unclear what will be in store from October when the current grace period ends. However, there have been reports of a phased introduction of checks on goods. Negotiators on both sides must use these next months carefully to ensure that solutions can be found for these issues.

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