- British businesses fear there is not enough time to produce new labels needed to export food after Britain leaves the Brexit transition period.
- Exporters will need new packaging to legally sell goods to both the European Union and customers in Northern Ireland from January.
- However, with just four months to go, trade associations say they are still waiting for Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government to provide guidance.
- Multiple trade bodies say the realistic deadline for producing new labelling has already passed.
- Business figures say that in a worst-case scenario, there could be food shortages in Northern Ireland.
Thousands of British food businesses could be left without the correct labelling required to continue selling to the European Union and Northern Ireland after the UK government missed an industry deadline to advise them on what new rules they will have to follow.
Britain will leave the EU’s trading rules at the end of this year, after which the labels that British food and drink businesses use will no longer be legally recognised on the continent.
UK trade associations repeatedly warned Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government that the end of August was the absolute deadline for issuing guidance that will allow them to produce new labels in time for January 1.
However, with just four months to go, they are still waiting for clarity from the UK government on the labelling rules they will have to follow in 2021.
“With the transition period nearing its end, UK-EU negotiations still ongoing, and updates to official guidance still awaited, the food industry has already practically run out of time to process the necessary label changes ahead of the January 2021 deadline,” Alex Turtle, the Food and Drink Federation’s labelling and enforcement manager, told Business Insider.
He added: “The UK’s exit from the EU requires food labels to be adapted as never before due to the unique situation of the country’s status change. These label changes are complex, and clarity from the Government is urgently required in order for industry to be able to create compliant food labels post-exit.”
UK government insiders and senior business figures say labelling is one of the most complex elements of preparing the country for life outside the trading bloc.
Michael Bell, the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association’s CEO, told Business Insider: “Like an onion, there is layer, layer, after layer when it comes to labelling, and every layer would bring you to tears.”
Aodhan Connolly, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: “Labelling isn’t something that you can fudge. It has to be exact if you want goods to be able to go to market.”
The Food and Drink Federation has called on Johnson’s government to include any free-trade deal with the EU in an adjustment period of at least 12 months in order to give businesses enough time to produce new labels.
Karin Smyth, the Labour Party’s shadow minister for Northern Ireland, urged UK government ministers “to be honest,” telling Business Insider: “Come what may, businesses in Northern Ireland will be trading under new rules in four months’ time, and they urgently need clarity on the requirements they need to put in place.
“Leaving them in the dark until the last minute is irresponsible and will force businesses and consumers to pay the price for the lack of preparation from ministers.”
UK government officials said they hoped to publish guidance on changes to labelling as soon as possible.
‘The government is sleepwalking into possible food shortages in Northern Ireland’
There is particular concern about the trade of food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU trading rules from next year to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland. In practice, this could force British exporters to Northern Ireland to use different labels from those used to package food sold elsewhere in the UK. This would seemingly contradict Johnson’s promise that trade across the Irish Sea would remain unfettered after Brexit.
Ministers have yet to clarify whether companies in Great Britain that export food to Northern Ireland, like major supermarkets, will be required to use different packaging from food sold elsewhere in the UK. The Food and Drink Federation’s Turtle told Business Insider, “Government direction on the labelling implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains outstanding.”
There are fears in Northern Ireland that there could be food shortages at the beginning of next year if British exporters do not have the correct labelling to sell food to the province. A senior business figure who spoke on condition of anonymity told Business Insider: “The government is sleepwalking into possible food shortages in Northern Ireland. If we don’t get some sort of derogation or agreement, this will be happening. There will be problems.”
The uncertainty is also fuelling concerns, previously reported by Business Insider, that the increased cost of trading with Northern Ireland will lead major retailers to pull out of the province.
“This new labelling regime could put people off sending goods to Northern Ireland due to the increased costs involved which will impact on consumer choice in Northern Ireland,” the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium’s Connolly said.
The Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association’s Bell said: “A significant amount of friction in terms of time and money could make the Northern Irish market less attractive to Great Britain suppliers.”