Government proposals for phased Northern Ireland food checks get mixed reaction

Wed 19 May 2021
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

The UK government's reported plan for introducing checks on food products moving into Northern Ireland from Great Britain have been met with a mixed reaction from industry bodies. 

The UK has been expected to make a new offer to the EU on how to ease the trade friction in Northern Ireland that has arisen since the Northern Ireland Protocol was introduced at the start of the year.

A Protocol roadmap has now been drawn up by the UK and shared with the EU, according to the BBC.

'Concrete timelines'

Documents seen by the Guardian suggest that phase 1 of the plan, beginning 1 October 2021, would involve the introduction of Export Health Certificates for fresh meat. Phase 2, from the end of January 2022, would cover dairy products, garden centre plants, seeds and wine.

Phase 3 would involve fruit and vegetables and pet food while phase 4 would cover “ambient” foods such as jams, products with a short shelf life and high-risk foods not of animal origin.

The UK says “concrete timelines” will evolve, with the timings of phases 3 and 4 determined by the success of the first phases and technical delivery conditions.

More questions

The proposals have had a mixed reaction from the food sector.

An editorial in authoritative grocery trade title The Grocer has said that the lack of detail “raises more questions than it answers”, such as whether the EU will agree and if the UK might press on regardless without that agreement.

“Trust is already low following the UK’s previous unilateral extensions of NI border checks. Lawsuits on the matter are ongoing. Any further deterioration in trust will benefit no one,” the editorial said.

A veterinary agreement would reduce border checks, which are disproportionately affecting smaller businesses, the editorial suggested. Without it, many smaller suppliers will drop out of the region altogether, it is suggested.

Align standards

However, as reported in the IOE&IT Daily Bulletin, the UK has rejected the EU's proposal to align with its veterinary standards and has instead backed a risk-based approach to health checks.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has called for urgent talks between the major supermarket groups it represents on the one hand and EU and British officials on the other to discuss the proposed new border checks for food products, reported MSN.

Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at BRC said: "EU and UK officials should urgently sit down with the major supermarkets to understand the issues and agree robust and practical controls which work for households across NI."

Time to prepare

Commenting on the plan, Peter Hardwick, trade policy advisor at the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), told Speciality Food that the proposals do not necessarily remove trade friction in the long run, but that do “provide a sensible timetable for businesses to prepare and adapt”.

Hardwick said the only long-term solution for these trade issues will be to reach a veterinary agreement.

“This could be achieved in a way that would not compromise our negotiating position on trade deals with other countries as it would focus on plant and animal health rules rather than food standards,” he said.

Reported in Meat Management, Norman Bagley, head of policy at the Association of Independent Meat Suppliers (AIMS), said it welcomed the news that phase one would commence in October with fresh meat products.

He called on policy makers to concentrate on greater use of technology and digitisation of the Export Health Certificates system to free up vets needed in processing plants.