Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal to unblock trade between Britain and Northern Ireland will not solve the problems companies face, supermarket chefs warn.
Retailers and food suppliers, including the meat and dairy trade associations and Marks & Spencer, have ruled out making full use of the expedited “green lane” customs system when it comes into effect in October due to its complexity and cost.
The system, which is at the heart of the Windsor Framework agreed earlier this year by Prime Minister and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, allows goods to cross the Irish Sea without physical checks and with minimal paperwork if they do so. labeled “not for EU”.
However, insiders said this would require a change in the packaging of thousands of items, meaning production lines would need to be adjusted. As a result, many products will not be ready in time for October, when the rules for meat and dairy take effect.
While there are likely to be changes to the packaging of more products in the future, in some cases the high cost means it won’t happen at all.
Goods without a label must remain in the “red lane”, which means that they are subject to full customs controls.
Andrew Opie, Food Director at the British Retail Consortium, said: “While retailers are working hard to be fully compliant by October, we are very concerned that unless the government swiftly fixes issues such as labeling and other controls on products going to Northern Ireland, supermarkets will not be able to maximize their use of the green lane, inevitably leading to disruption to their supply chains.”
According to industry sources, supermarkets have still not seen a full list of items that can pass through the “green” and “red” lanes.
A source at one of Britain’s four largest supermarkets said: “Most retailers will probably have to use the red lane for some products to begin with, simply because of the labeling requirements, we don’t yet know in detail what they are.”
It raises new questions about whether Mr Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement was as successful as initially claimed. Announcing the agreement earlier this year, the Prime Minister said it “removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.
However, supermarket and food bosses are increasingly concerned about what the split system will look like when phased in.
An M&S spokesperson said: “The Windsor Framework is an important step forward for Northern Ireland, but the details within it – particularly labeling requirements – come with a cost and complexity that will take time to fully implement.”
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, said: “It may not just be the retailers insisting on going through the red channel, it could be that we could see this in the restaurant sector as well.
“You could say that some food service companies, McDonald’s or whoever could say, ‘we don’t want the restriction of putting something in Northern Ireland and not being able to go south’.”
Retail insiders suggested that companies selling in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would face further costs following the change as they would have to produce both labeled and unlabelled packaging.
A source suggested this could require them to use different supply chains for the two different lanes.
Another industry insider said there was further complexity when it came to products imported from the rest of the world before being shipped from Britain to Northern Ireland, which risked being left out of the green away.
There has also been confusion over the full scope of labeling requirements for those products that remain in Northern Ireland.
As The Telegraph revealed in May, the plans under discussion include requiring supermarkets to put labels indicating no food should be shipped into the EU, not only on the individual packaging of food, but also on boxes of products and on the shelves of supermarkets.
A Dairy UK spokesperson said: “The Green Lane system should simplify the administrative processes required to ship goods from the UK to Northern Ireland.
“However, they do have some challenges, especially with regard to labeling on packages.
“There are still some unresolved issues to be resolved in this area, which creates some uncertainty. In light of this, some operators may choose to continue with the Red Lane arrangements they are now familiar with.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said: “The Windsor Framework solves the practical problems of the old protocol and secures Northern Ireland’s place in our Union.
“We are working extensively with businesses in Northern Ireland to help them prepare, including publishing detailed guidance and providing financial support.”
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