Supermarkets are calling for a temporary exemption from health checks on certain food products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain in order to prevent shortages there next year.
Food stores in the region are mostly supplied from the mainland but under the Northern Ireland Protocol — part of the Brexit divorce treaty signed by the UK in October 2019 — imports of many everyday “products of animal origin” will require export health certificates (EHCs) after the transition period ends on December 31.
Some processed meat products such as sausages and minced meat will also have to arrive frozen unless the EU agrees a UK exemption from existing rules on imports from third countries.
The government has promised a “trusted trader” scheme for retailers to alleviate the bureaucracy and costs of EHCs but details have yet to be agreed with the EU and retailers say there is now insufficient time to implement it.
“There has been no white smoke yet,” said Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. “We have got six weeks left. We will need an implementation period. It could be six months, or 12, as long as it takes”. He added that supermarkets would normally start planning for a process change of this magnitude 18 months in advance.
Retailers’ demands were supported by the Food and Drink Federation and Cold Chain UK, which represents chilled logistics providers.
“We need to allow a grace period before imposing checks on food transported into Northern Ireland,” said Cold Chain Federation chief executive Shane Brennan. “It is the only way to avoid empty shelves and other economic harm for consumers there.”
Supermarket bosses have warned that the additional bureaucracy will lead to higher prices and reduced choice.
Simon Roberts, the chief executive of J Sainsbury, said recently that “this is not one or two products in stores I am talking about, it is a substantial number of products and key, everyday products too.”
In its half-year results statement, Iceland Foods said it had “impressed upon the government the vital importance of establishing a ‘trusted trader’ scheme, with a green channel at the ports”.
The “export health certificates” needed for many products containing meat, poultry or fish must be signed off by a vet, and in a mixed truck load each product line must have its own certificate.
The UK government said it was “working hard to minimise the impact of any new requirements on supermarkets transporting goods into Northern Ireland”.
According to one industry executive, a recent conference call between supermarket executives, the devolved Northern Ireland government and UK ministers left politicians “in no doubt” about the seriousness of the situation.
There is concern that some supermarkets may ultimately withdraw from the region, though none has said publicly that this is under consideration. Aldi, Waitrose and Wm Morrison do not operate in the region and for others Northern Ireland is a small part of their overall business.
“Six months ago [retailers] were looking at which products would be viable. Now they’re looking at whether their business models are viable,” said Mr Connolly.
If no trade agreement is reached, the UK government could devise and implement a scheme under the auspices of its controversial Internal Market Bill, which seeks to override some elements of the Brexit divorce deal in relation to Northern Ireland. But Mr Brennan pointed out that the EU could launch legal action in response.
Another alternative is that authorities in Northern Ireland do not enforce phytosanitary checks. Few believe this is a viable solution; aside from the likely political ructions, it would technically leave retailers in breach of the law.
Supply chains could pivot towards Irish suppliers, especially at retailers which have stores north and south of the border.
“Anything is possible over time,” said Mr Connolly, but he added that unpicking supply chains that had developed to span the islands of Great Britain and Ireland was complex and would leave retailers exposed to exchange-rate fluctuations.
Lidl acknowledged that running its 39 Northern Ireland stores as part of its Ireland operation meant they were “protected from many of the challenges associated with Brexit”. It added that it had “plans in place to ensure the supply of our imported product range will be maintained after December 31”.