Brexit bureaucracy is hitting UK food and drink sales to EU, sector warns

Inconsistent and increasingly burdensome post-Brexit bureaucracy is blighting food and drink sales to the EU, the sector warned as it published analysis showing exports to the bloc were down 40 per cent in February compared with a year earlier. 

The UK Food and Drink Federation said on Monday that the latest UK government data painted a stark picture of the challenges facing companies, and especially smaller businesses, as they grapple with new veterinary and customs checks introduced on January 1.

The federation, which represents more than 800 companies, said the statistics showed that food and drink exports to the EU in February were worth £578.7m, down from £1bn in February 2020.

This was only marginally offset by an 8.7 per cent increase, worth £55.6m, in sales to non-EU countries in February compared with the same period last year.

Sales of milk and cream to the EU were down 96.4 per cent compared with February 2020, and exports of chicken and beef were both down more than 75 per cent. 

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While the pandemic had been a factor in slowing trade, the federation said the clear sense from business was that Brexit was a driving force. Dominic Goudie, its head of international trade, said: “UK businesses continue to struggle with inconsistent and incorrect demands at EU borders.”

Small businesses “have been hardest hit” he said, due in part to the collapse of the business model of lorries carrying goods from different suppliers, something rendered less practical post-Brexit because it multiplies the paperwork needed.

The organisation is calling for urgent meetings of the joint UK-EU committees overseeing the post-Brexit trade deal. The agreement, which ensures tariff-free, quote-free trade for British and EU-made goods, has been in provisional application since January 1 and is set to be ratified by the European Parliament on Tuesday. 

Confusion over paperwork can lead to goods being held up for hours or days © Jeff J Mitchell/Getty

The figures are nonetheless an improvement compared with January when trading slackened in part because companies had sought to shift inventory before Britain’s post-Brexit transition period expired at the end of 2020. UK food and drink exports to the continent fell 75.5 per cent that month, compared with January 2020. 

Specific problems highlighted by the food and drink sector include customs and veterinary officials in different EU countries interpreting the bloc’s rules in different ways.

“The challenge is that one border official to the next might have different demands: what is acceptable in France is not acceptable in Belgium in the way you complete paperwork,” Goudie said.

Another problem identified by the federation is that exporters are sometimes being incorrectly required to provide special codes, known as Meursing codes, that are normally used by officials on the EU side to work out what import tariff should apply to baked goods and confectionery. Sorting out the codes can cost companies up to £500 per product, Goudie said.

A further complicating factor is that on April 21 the EU stiffened its rules for when export health certificates or other attestations are required for processed foods such as lasagne and pork pies.

Confusion over paperwork can lead to goods being held up for hours or days.

Products coming into the UK from the EU face fewer barriers as Britain is only gradually rolling out its new system of checks on goods over the course of this year.

Despite the persistent problems, there are signs that EU-UK trade is picking up. Data gathered by IRN Research on the number of trailers, trucks and lorries travelling between the UK and the EU by ferry shows that traffic across the short routes, including via the Channel Tunnel, was down merely 2 per cent in March 2021 compared with March 2020. 

By comparison, traffic was down 14.9 per cent in February, compared with the same period the previous year, according to the IRN Research data, which was sourced from ferry operators.

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