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Brexit could lead to sub-standard food imports, farmers warn

Andrew Woodcock
·4-min read

Reductions in EU food imports caused by new Brexit red tape may force the government to accept sub-standard supplies from other parts of the world just to feed the UK population, farmers have warned.

The warning came a day after the government overturned House of Lords amendments to the Trade Bill which would have allowed parliament to block the import of goods like US chlorinated chicken or hormone-pumped beef.

National Farmers Union official Nick von Westerholz rejected Boris Johnson’s claim that new barriers to trade from his EU deal amount to no more than “teething problems”, telling a Lords committee: “They may be bumps in the road now, but they are going to get bigger. These are not the teething problems that some people have referred to.”

The Lords EU Environment Sub-Committee heard of “incredibly time-consuming” new bureaucracy hampering movements of animal and food products across borders both onto the continent of Europe and into Northern Ireland as a result of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) reached by Mr Johnson on Christmas Eve.

And representatives of farmers, retailers and food and drink manufacturers warned delays and cost burdens were likely to increase as trade volumes - significantly reduced at present as companies hold back from testing the new systems - return to normal levels in the coming weeks, and a grace period for checks ends on movements to Northern Ireland in April and for imports from the EU to mainland Britain in July.

Mr von Westerholz told the committee: “We are beginning to feel the effects at farm level of the problems many traders are having. It’s modest and slowly building at the moment, but we do expect over the next weeks and months for the effects to become more keenly felt.”

The committee heard how product movements were being disrupted because companies needed to supply details of the content of consignments with 24-hour notice, and fill in vehicle registration plates on forms in advance, when these details were not known until much later under just-in-time supply methods.

For certain products like fresh processed meats - sausages or mince - and seed potatoes there had been a “hard stop” to exports to the EU, said the Food and Drink Federation’s Dominic Goudie.

And sugar-based sweet manufacturers were finding themselves having to find new UK sources for sugar because of provisions in the deal limiting the use of products from overseas, which are less generous than in Canada’s deal with the EU, he said.

Parcel delivery firms were refusing to carry small consignments of animal and plant-based products, such as speciality cheeses, because of the additional paperwork.

Mr von Westerholz said that the impact of delays and refusals of consignments at the border was increasingly being felt by farmers, who were “nervous” about lower trade volumes becoming “embedded or structural” and hitting prices at the farm gate.

And he said there was “an enormous question mark” over what Mr Johnson’s TCA will mean for the availability of healthy and affordable food and consumer choice.

“The one thing that worries me is, if we do see a structural decrease in imports from the EU and if we do see downward pressure on productivity in the UK - or certainly on prices in the UK - that increases the incentives for the UK government to liberalise its trade policy without also taking account of issues around the standards of the food that we eat, the way it has been produced, the nutritional content,” he told the committee.

“We may just need to get hold of food wherever we can at whatever whatever cost.

“It does concern me that the UK government may feel itself forced into doing, for example, quick deals with countries to secure food imports, regardless of how that food has been produced.”

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