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The bitter taste of Brexit: New red tape will mean higher food prices

Just as food inflation finally slows, new border checks will make EU produce more expensive in our shops

New checks on food imports from the EU could lead to higher prices and shortages in the UK. Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty

What I am about to write will shock you. Jacob Rees-Mogg is right about something.

Eight long years after the Brexit decision that Rees-Mogg and his chums promised would bring cheaper food to Britain, the UK is at last introducing checks on food, animal and plant products imported into the UK from the EU. These checks were supposed to begin in 2021 as part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement signed by Boris Johnson but have been delayed five times, with some of those delays ordered by Rees-Mogg himself when he was in Johnson’s cabinet.

Now they are due to begin from January 31, and actual inspections will start in April.

Why the delays? Partly because our government failed to build the facilities or develop the software necessary to make them work. But also because it knows that the extra costs incurred will create yet more food price rises here.

That is why Rees-Mogg, in May 2022, said bringing them in would be “an act of self-harm… it would have increased costs for people and we are trying to reduce costs”. This week he has called their belated introduction “really stupid”.

Let’s park our disbelief at Rees-Mogg, a stopped grandfather clock that still tells the correct time twice a day, owning up that Brexit isn’t working for the British people, and examine just why he is right this time.

One recent headline implied that the new rules would threaten the availability of Parma ham and Spanish chorizo in Britain. And well they might. But much more than speciality meats are involved.

Take a trip on any motorway and count the chiller lorries from France, Italy and, most importantly, Spain. They deliver tons of fresh food to our supermarket shelves all day, every day. We would struggle to feed Britain without them.

The UK imports 70% of its fresh food from the continent in the winter months and 30% in summer – 1,000 lorries a day arrive at the UK’s ports to carry all that produce. This is a huge, time-sensitive business and yet the industry is already warning that neither it nor the government is ready for seismic change.

From this week, importers of goods including milk, eggs and meat will have to get new Export Health Certificates. On April 30, physical checks will start and then finally on October 31, firms will need to supply safety and security certificates. Previously, none of this was necessary – now firms wishing to sell in the UK will need to employ vets and other inspectors to check their goods, fill in and approve the paperwork, then hope the UK government’s computer system works and that their lorries aren’t pulled over for inspection.

According to the government’s own figures, this new red tape will add some £330m per year to the costs of those imports. The industry says even that figure does not include the delays and uncertainty that it will face, and the real cost is therefore much higher.

Although large importers are expected to cope, for many small importers and small EU food exporters this will be a crisis. When the EU introduced these same tests and checks on the export of UK food to the EU, many small UK exporters just stopped bothering to sell in the rest of Europe, deciding that was not worth the added cost and time necessary to fill in forms and check goods. That is expected to happen again, with continental exporters to the UK taking the brunt of the pain this time.

Which is where the Parma ham and chorizo comes in (or rather, doesn’t). But it’s not just speciality meats at risk. The UK imports 22% of its beef, 21% of its sheep meat and 49% of its pork, with the EU supplying the bulk of those needs.

But all of these imports will now need to be accompanied by certificates signed by vets. The British Meat Processing Association (BMPA) says there is a lack of veterinary capacity in EU exporting nations, especially “at the end of the week and on weekends”. As its latest report explains, “Put bluntly, if the vets aren’t able to sign off the documentation, consignments of meat may not even leave the factory, let alone get to a UK Border Control Post.” 

The big firms will cope by throwing money at the problems. Those who will suffer most are the little guys – the system is just not developed to deal with small businesses that import their goods in lorries with lots of other companies in something called “groupage” – loads of pallets. Some 65% of all the lorries entering the UK are carrying groupage loads.

Each load will need a certificate lodged by the importer with the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), to show they have been checked and approved. Even if the lorry is not pulled over at the border for inspection, the importer will be charged for every load. And not just per lorry but by each individual load or pallet.

But at least we know what costs to factor in, right? Wrong. The government has not yet decided how much it will charge – it is probably somewhere between £20 and £43, but it hasn’t said yet. Eight years on, importers are waiting to hear how much they will need to pay.

And here’s another Brexit benefit: if the lorry is inspected and just one load is found to be not up to standard or has the wrong paperwork, the whole lorry load will be delayed or even turned back. Every small food importer is thus reliant on the quality of every other importer’s red tape.

The Fresh Produce Consortium says all this “poses a potential threat to the viability of numerous small- and medium-sized enterprises.” Meanwhile, the Farmers’ Union, which backs the proper testing of food imports in fear that otherwise swine fever or foot and mouth could get into Britain, now warns that problems at the border could cause long delays and damage to young plants being imported for farmers to grow.

Of course, all of this is also reliant on the UK government having developed a computer system that can cope with all this new paperwork – if its past record is anything to go by the system will collapse on day one.

None of this red tape or the £330m cost was necessary before Brexit. The border was safe and seamless. The result was full shelves of produce at the cheapest possible price.

Now the industry is bracing itself for higher prices and shortages. So should we all.

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