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New Brexit food checks will test Britain’s supply chains

  • According to Islam Faisal
  • Economic editor

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This time, the government will actually do it. There is no turning back. They will press the button to build a new kind of trade border from the continent into the UK.

In the industry, it is called Brexit 2.0. At least, that’s the more polite version of the name that imposes a series of new post-Brexit requirements in the UK on food importers.

This is the final piece in the puzzle of changes needed after the UK leaves the EU’s customs union and single market.

The most significant changes to imports of food and plant products from the European Union began to be implemented on Wednesday, after a series of delays.

This means there will be significantly more bureaucracy. In particular, expensive veterinary certificates will be legally required for shipments of fresh food and plants imported from the EU. This is a requirement starting from 0001 on Wednesday, but will not be subject to physical checks at the border for another three months.

The government acknowledges that extra bureaucracy and checks will increase food prices, pushing the overall price level up by 0.2 percentage points over three years. That would mean a noticeable impact on food inflation, but not a new food price shock like that seen after Russia invaded Ukraine. However, that increase was enough for the cabinet to further delay the introduction of checks last year, at a time when food inflation was rising by double digits.

As Tom Southall, director of the Cold Chain Federation, said: “There has never been a good time to do it, which is why it has been delayed five times.”

The delay has led to two problems. There was a lack of reciprocity. UK food and agricultural exports to the EU are subject to extra red tape, checks and delays for three years, but their competitors on the continent gain access to the Kingdom You freely. The farming industry has expressed concerns about the UK’s biosecurity, i.e. protecting against the spread of disease in plants and animals, which could cause huge losses.

But tomorrow, four years after Brexit, the changes will begin.

If all goes according to the government’s plan, the smooth and phased roll-out of these new checks will protect the UK’s biosecurity, with minimal impact on supplies food supply and costs, and even create incentives for both the UK and EU to work together to reduce these barriers. .

Various parts of the industry report a series of interrelated concerns that paint a rather different picture: rising costs, delays and limited supplies – especially specialized food imports.

The specific question is whether a lack of understanding of UK changes in individual EU countries and regions will combine with a shortage of vets and lead to many smaller EU businesses giving up supplying You or not.

The impact is most likely to be seen on deli counters rather than on supermarket shelves. John Keefe, director of Getlink, the operator of the Channel Tunnel, said: “The big unknown is whether there are enough official vets across Europe to sign all the Export Health Certificates.” No. If there aren’t enough veterinarians, there will be a big problem of not having certifications.” means no imports”.

Most detractors worry that these changes will be costly and problematic, upsetting some specialist providers rather than being a broader problem.

The application of these checks since December 2020 in the other direction (into the EU from the UK) has resulted in a need for 852,165 Export Health Certificates issued by British veterinarians, or 1.7 million hours of veterinary time, billed at £100 per hour. That’s according to the Refrigerated Food Association, which has to extract the numbers from the government through monthly freedom of information requests. They told the government the industry had to generate £8.5bn of extra revenue to cover the £170m cost of veterinary certification from GB to the EU.

The UK imports more food than it exports, so expect these numbers to exceed these new requirements.

Karin Goodburn of the Refrigerated Food Association also chairs the SPS Certification Working Group. Her biggest worry is the failure of the 24-7, 365 days a week food supply chain, where you have to wait for a veterinarian to sign a certificate and then issue a 24-hour import notification. “It could stop those supply chains or at least hit the pause button,” she said.

Last week she wrote to Agriculture Secretary Steve Barclay on various concerns about the preparations of the site in Kent to host cross-Channel import checks. Surprisingly, the government is yet to fix the per-shipment fee payable for these cheques. Clarity on whether the charge will be closer to £10 or £43 per consignment will be given in the coming weeks, the government said.

On top of that, official EU vets are unlikely to be available around the clock, nights and weekends to sign off perishable exports to the UK. And all of this is made more complicated by the requirement to give one day’s notice on imports. That’s a large percentage of the best shelf life of these goods.

“We lost a day,” Ms. Goodburn said. That’s 20% of its shelf life and the product is effectively unsalable.”

Add all this together and you have a rigorous stress test of a transcontinental food supply chain designed to deliver safe, perishable food, on time. On top of that, most of the more exotic imports – cocoa or bananas, for example – are shipped to EU hubs like Rotterdam.

The export health inspection system is actually designed for long-distance transportation of stable food products on container ships. There is a risk that this system does not work when applied to frictionless free trade in perishable goods. These complex and complicated supply chains into the UK have never been tested in this way.

While the phased introduction of controls will limit apparent disruption, freight organizations have told MPs their concerns over key issues in the Autumn, when the EU is also expected to change its border arrangements for individuals. Kent County Council is preparing for a reasonable worst-case scenario of a 14-hour wait when EU Immigration checks and visa exemption requirements begin.

“The combination of both of these schemes, which come into force in 2024, could cause significant delays and disruption to the UK’s EU supply chains… UK Logistics members He was also concerned that EES [Entry/ Exit System] and BTOM [Border Target Operating Model, the government’s plans for importing goods into Great Britain] “is likely to lead to a shortage of drivers to carry out work in Europe, which in turn would increase costs with a potential inflationary impact,” freight trade body Logistics UK told the Commission. Commons European Scrutiny Committee last week.

Although these concerns have been expressed before, there is now an important difference. This is one area of ​​post-Brexit policy where the opposition has been prepared to openly challenge the government.

Labor proposes a Veterinary Agreement with the EU that could reduce the need for border checks on health certificates or even remove the need altogether. The challenge of reducing friction and disruption will also require closer alignment with EU food safety regulations on gene editing and fertilizers. It is unclear exactly where Labor wants to achieve the trade-off between frictionless food trade and regulatory freedom.

So tomorrow, a trial will begin. Can the UK’s pan-European food supply chain operate effectively within a burdensome system of certification and inspection? And what if the industry is right that maximum disruption will occur this Fall, around the time the General Election is expected? The final piece of the Brexit jigsaw could be its biggest consequence.


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