Skip to main content

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.

The ‘self-harm’ Brexit import checks are here – and the damage will be huge

Higher prices and empty shelves are on the way

Image: Getty

Bad things come to those who wait. Four years after Brexit happened and five delays later, from April 30 the UK will start inspecting food imports from the EU and charging importers for the checks.

The delays have been for two reasons – the government didn’t get its act together fast enough, and it is worried about fall-out from the checks’ effects. But now it has been forced to act.

For four years the UK has been at serious risk of importing a major disease, like foot and mouth, which would devastate the farming industry. We are no longer part of the EU’s food safety system – it introduced its own checks four years ago – and are therefore now a go-to market for those selling rancid meat and rotten fish.

But checks cost money and the government has just announced how much it will charge to implement the tests. Each product imported will be charged up to £29 even if it is not selected for inspection.

That means if you import one pack of cheese or one pack of bacon you will pay £29. Multiple loads of different products will be capped at 5 times £29, or £145. In reality, that means that nearly everyone will pay £145 per load, even if that load contains just 5 different products.

The government says the fees will pay for “world-class border facilities”, but even if they are world-class they are border facilities which were completely unnecessary while we stayed in the EU. In fact, these are checks that the Brexit supporters told us would never be needed.

The consequences are obvious. Imports will fall as many continental firms, especially small ones, decide that the game is no longer worth the candle, and just sell elsewhere instead. Food prices will rise as companies which stick it out try to pass their added costs on.

We know that imports will fall because that is what has happened to UK firms selling food in the EU – exports by small firms collapsed. They just gave up on the red tape and costs and stopped selling in the EU – for instance, meat exports from the UK to the EU have fallen by 17% since Brexit.

Bigger firms can spread the costs across huge lorryloads of a single product, smaller businesses may have one mixed pallet of different foods on a lorry that also contains a dozen other pallets from a dozen other firms. The costs will be crippling – one £145 charge will quite likely wipe out any profit on the imports and if just one pallet fails an inspection the whole load will be turned back.

Even the government admits this will cost businesses £330 million a year. Yet that doesn’t count the cost of filing in the forms and writing the cheques, or the fact that firms will have to take on more staff just to push pens. Smaller firms just cannot afford to do that.

The latest figures from the Food and Drink Federation found that British exports are down by 5.5%, year on year. That trend is now just going to be replicated for British imports.

Foreign firms will have to get vets’ certificates for every export to the UK, run new computer systems, fill in forms, send exact details of their loads to UK officials and pay for the privilege of doing all this.

Even if the system works – and that is a big if – it will doubtless mean more delays and time lost, a shorter shelf life and more food waste.

The UK imports 70% of its food from the continent in the winter months and 30% in summer. A thousand lorries a day will need to have the right paperwork, and many will still be pulled over for checks at newly built, massively expensive facilities.

As for food prices, this is just an own goal. It either hits profits or prices and most likely both.

Remember the £330m a year that the government calculates the red tape will cost is only a small part of the total price increases that will be passed on to shops, bars, restaurants, cafes, and food manufacturers. We are all going to pay more.

Last year the Centre for Economic Performance at the LSE found that Brexit was responsible for a third of all UK food price inflation since 2019. It discovered that regulatory border checks added almost £7 billion to our grocery bills, and all that was before the British government got round to adding these new charges and tests. It is now going to get worse again.

The list of business organisations pulling their hair out is too long to list in full but includes, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Cold Chain Federation, the British Retail Consortium, the Horticultural Trades Association, the Institute of Export and International Trade, and the Food and Drink Federation.

The latter has declared that this “ leaves businesses with less than a month to prepare for a crucial aspect of the new border model, which will have a knock-on impact on financial and procurement decisions.”

And that “It’s disappointing that there has been a shift in approach away from multiple items being included under a single declaration with one charge, to businesses being charged per item, which will significantly increase costs for companies bringing in mixed product loads, and disproportionately impact SMEs.“

There is also the worry about what non-government-operated ports will charge. They will base their charges on these fees but will probably charge more on top.

The common theme from all of the businesses affected is that this is a “hammer blow”, that the fees have been announced just a matter of weeks before they are due to be introduced and “seem to have been worked out on the back of a fag packet.”

Businesses say there is now not enough time to prepare for the changes and that they have little faith that the system will even work. If the system doesn’t run smoothly, the delays and costs will multiply immediately.

The government has had eight years to organise this system, four more than it took the supposedly useless Eurocrats of the EU and still it is a mess. The government says “The charges follow extensive consultation with industry and a cap has been set specifically to help smaller businesses.” Which will doubtless come as a surprise to industry and especially smaller businesses.

These checks and charges have even been postponed five times because the government was not ready. Most famously when Jacob Rees-Mogg delayed them in May 2022, because they would have been “an act of self-harm… it would have increased costs for people, and we are trying to reduce costs”.

Nothing has changed since then. They will still increase costs, cause delays and are like Brexit itself are an act of “self-harm”. Unfortunately, this is an act of “self-harm” that is probably here to stay.

Labour says that it would renegotiate the Brexit deal to try to get an agreement with the EU on food and agricultural standards (SPS), so reducing or even negating the need for some or possibly all of these checks. But that is probably a pipe dream.

The EU has little or no interest in reopening talks and the UK would have to agree to follow each and every EU law and regulation regarding food and agricultural produce for ever and even then, that still might not be enough.

Just the fact that the UK’s new trade deals with Australia and New Zealand allow in products that would never meet EU standards makes any deal very unlikely.

Brexit means a border with the EU and a border means checks; you are either inside the club or you are not. We are not.

Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best experience possible, please make sure any ad blockers are switched off, or add to your trusted sites, and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help you can email us.