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Post-Brexit Delays To Wine, Cheese And Veg Risk Hampering The Reopening Of Hospitality

Post-Brexit Delays To Wine, Cheese And Veg Risk Hampering The Reopening Of Hospitality
6 min read

The government's plan to introduce checks on food and drink from the European Union this summer risks hampering the re-opening of pubs and restaurants, industry bodies have warned.

Cheese, wine, vegetables and other imports from the continent are at risk of being delayed.

“There would have been a full-blown crisis in Northern Ireland in January had restaurants been open and the same sort of thinking could play out for EU-UK flows,” said Shane Brennan, Chief Executive of The Cold Chain Federation. 

“It is unprecedented in terms of what we are going to experience”.

Unlike the EU, which implemented post-Brexit checks on goods coming from the UK on January 1st, the government has opted for a phased approach in order to give businesses time to prepare.

On April 1st UK border officials will begin requesting Sanitary & Phytosanitary paperwork for animal and plant imports like meat and eggs. Three months later, on July 1st, all goods arriving into Britain from EU member states will face a full range of customs, security and health checks.

This plethora of post-Brexit paperwork is currently causing severe disruption to British exporters.

Fish and meat traders have been acutely affected, with the new red tape creating delays and leading European customers to cancel orders. Some businesses have already closed as a result.

Goods coming the other way are set to face the same issues when import checks start this spring.

Adding to the potential chaos is the re-opening of hospitality, which according to the government's roadmap will take place more or less over the same period of time: outdoor hospitality is set to re-open on April 12, indoor with restrictions from May 17, and with no limitations from June 21.

The demand for food and drink is expected to rocket this summer as restaurants, pubs and bars reopen and as Brits celebrate the removal of lockdown measures. However, trade associations are warning that checks on imports from the UK's biggest trading partner could hinder supply. 

“The risk is demand might be significantly above what we’d experience in a normal year and the additional capacity you’d seek to source from overseas, mainly from Europe,” Brennan explained.

“The reality of Brexit so far is that what we used to call day one to day two supply chains have become day one to day four of five or supply chains. If that’s the same coming the other way, then that’ll really hamper the ability of businesses to respond to an increase in demand”.

The Food & Drink Federation's Dominic Goudie warned that delays could prevent hospitality businesses from providing full menus once they finally reopen.

“We are worried about the continued timely delivery of essential ingredients and raw materials and anticipate that many EU SMEs will struggle to access the UK market because deliveries that take place using groupage are just not workable,” he told PoliticsHome.

“Where essential goods don’t arrive, this threatens to impact on the operations of all businesses in the UK food industry".

The Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) has asked ministers to postpone the April 1st checks, CEO Nigel Jenney said, as it does not believe Britain's borders will be ready to carry them out.

He said that fruit and vegetable importers had not yet seen the IT system which the government plans to use for logging pre-notifications of incoming EU goods in just a few weeks' time.

“We have had no training on it and there are thousands of businesses involved that have not had to do this before. How can you prepare at such short notice for such a huge change?”

The UK gets nearly two-thirds of its fruit and vegetables from the EU and this trade currently takes place "in hours, not days," Jenney said. He warned that the new paperwork would slow down this just-in-time supply chain and result in hospitality businesses struggling to get hold of certain goods.

“The sector is at breaking point and while we are totally committed and excited to support our restaurant customers as they reopen, the new processes are going to put that under considerable pressure because there are so many factors beyond the industry’s control," he warned.

Meat supplies are also at risk of disruption, said Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association. The UK imports large quantities of beef and pork from the EU and British buyers are braced for "another flurry of confusion" when new checks take effect in April.

Cheese is a big concern, too. 

The UK is around 85% self-sufficient in dairy but for a handful of dairy foods it is reliant on EU imports. It gets nearly 60% of its cheese from the continent, like Brie from France and Feta from Greece. Some are used in the manufacturing of products which are sold to hospitality businesses.

Ash Amirahmadi, chair of Dairy UK, told PoliticsHome that while there would be “some level of disruption in April,” he didn’t expect it to be severe enough to affect supplies of dairy goods.

However, he is more worried about July 1st.

“Everything I’ve said for April, dial it up for July… July is a more significant date,” he said.

Amirahmadi’s biggest concern is that the borders will not be ready to carry out the full range of checks on goods coming from the EU in the summer, potentially creating chaos and long delays.

“What will drive disruption is less about documentation and whether the dairy industry is ready or not, and more the general readiness of operation at the ports,” he told PoliticsHome.

“When you’re carrying out physical checks on all goods and documentation at the border, government must ensure it has enough people and they’re trained and know what they’re doing”.

This month Politico reported that ports across the country were calling on ministers to postpone the introduction of import checks as some infrastructure was not expected to be ready on time. 

Wine is another headache, as the re-opening of out-of-home eating draws closer. Around 55% of wine consumed in the UK is from the EU, with the country importing £2 billion worth from the bloc last year.

“There has already been a fundamental change in how importers do business, requiring a move from six steps to around 15, and engagement with multiple different systems,” said Miles Beale, Chief Executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

“The risk is that further changes in April and into the summer cause delays at borders, with alcoholic products delayed in queues”.

Industry figures say the government has indicated that it would be prepared to take a “light-touch” approach to import checks if it deemed it necessary.

While the EU’s post-Brexit approach has been rigorous enforcement of the rules, the UK could take a more relaxed approach and waive imports through to maintain the flow of goods, they said.

Brennan stressed, however, that the British businesses he represented intended to follow the new rules.

“They could choose not to enforce the rules, but the rules still apply. No business of any size or scale which is engaged in this process is planning to not comply on the 1st of April,” he said.

The government has not responded to PoliticsHome's request for comment.

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