Brexit means many food producers plan to stop supplying to Northern Ireland

Friday 20th November 2020 19:00 GMT

According to a survey of member companies carried out by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), almost a third of respondents said they planned to "pause" shipments to Northern Ireland amid the confusion caused by the implementation of the so-called "Irish Sea border".

While the rest of the UK will leave the EU's single market, Northern Ireland will effectively remain within it for goods.

The Northern Ireland protocol - designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland - means that many goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain will face new checks, which will substantially increase cost.

Dominic Goudie, the FDF's Head of International Trade, says it's "an extremely serious situation."

"We found in our latest survey that nearly 29% of businesses were looking to either reduce their shipments into NI or temporarily pause supply to the NI market after 1 January," he says.

"The challenge that many of them is facing is that they just don't have answers to the questions they've been asking."

That uncertainty is reflected at the other end of the food supply chain to Northern Ireland. At the Arcadia Deli in Belfast, owner Mark Brown is facing a potential doubling in the price of an English cheese.

He currently buys half a wheel of Colston Bassett stilton from Nottinghamshire for around £60. But he estimates that, after 1 January, each cheese will need an Export Health Certificate that could cost £50 or £60.

"What am I going to do?" he says.

"I can't pass on that kind of price increase to the customer. There's no way anyone will pay double for their wedge of Stilton at Christmas. I can't source it from anywhere else... otherwise it's not Stilton."

He's referring to the cheese's Protected Designation of Origin status, which means a Stilton can only be produced in three English counties.

Mr Brown says the irony of Brexit is that he will now most likely sell a European cheese instead.

"This is a Picos blue cheese from northern Spain", Mr Brown says, holding up a vine leaf-covered wheel.

"Currently it's selling for a pound more than the Stilton, but post-Brexit, with the new checks we're expecting, it will be nearly half the price of the Stilton. That's what customers will choose instead. At the start of Brexit, I thought it'd be cheaper to get British produce rather than European, but now, it's the other way around."

Many of the larger retailers, like supermarkets, are extremely reluctant to comment publicly on their plans. But Sainsbury's has warned that its supply of some fish, dairy and meat products to Northern Ireland could be hit.

The chain's chief executive Simon Roberts told The Guardian earlier this month: "If we don't get greater clarity on the Northern Irish situation then we will see a restriction on the ranges of products we can sell. This is not one or two products in stores I am talking about, it is a substantial number of products and quite key, everyday products too."

That is something many in Northern Ireland will feel very keenly, according to Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.

"The starting point for this is that the Northern Irish consumers have half the discretionary income of Great British households," he says.

"So even small cost rises are going to affect them. We are going to see cost rises because of checks, because of Export Health Certificates, because of delays, all these things are friction and all of them have costs.

"The retail industry is high-volume, low-profit margin, so we can't afford it... but neither can the Northern Ireland consumer."

As the Brexit negotiations continue, retailers are urging the UK government and the EU to agree upon some form of transitionary or grace period for businesses.

A "trusted trader" scheme has also been mooted, although many fear small businesses would not benefit.

In response, a UK government spokesperson told Sky News: "We are in regular contact with the food industry to support its preparations for a range of scenarios, and will continue to work closely with them to ensure people across the UK have the food and supplies they need."

For now, retailers like Mr Brown are urging their customers to stock up on products that might soar in price, or disappear altogether. "It's a bit ridiculous," he says, "isn't it?"

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