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Opinion: Here comes the next phase of Brexit – and it will be bad for our diet, health and wealth

They keep telling us to move on; to accept that Brexit is done. The problem is, Brexit isn’t done with us.

Illustration: Sarah Tanat-Jones/The Observer

It isn’t a single disabling event. It’s a degenerative disease, and here comes the next stage. On 31 October, after four postponements to get infrastructure in place, the UK will finally introduce checks on fresh and chilled food imports.

The EU has already introduced its checks, which come with a vast amount of paperwork and significant costs. The impact on the export of fruit from the UK to the EU has been dramatic, reducing the value from £248.5m in 2021 to £113.8m by 2023, a drop of more than 50%.

Now it’s going to work the other way. EU producers of meat products wishing to export to the UK will have to employ a vet to certify their goods, which will cost up to €700 a time. All sectors will have to employ agents for data entry compliance which could add another €200. They will have to train themselves on the paperwork.

Then, come January, there’s the border inspection charge of up to £43 for each consignment regardless of whether it’s physically inspected or not. Faced by all of this, thousands of small producers from across Europe who have kept this country supplied with a fabulously diverse range of quality products will simply decide it’s not worth the trouble. They’ll sell elsewhere.

The quality of our lives will be diminished.

Any policy which means we will eat worse, that our lives are less good, is surely a terrible thing

Cue the eye-rolling. Why should we care whether you will have less access to artisan sheep’s milk cheeses, or lovingly made charcuterie? Or, as it was put in a sarcastic tweet by Nick Timothy, the ace political strategist who had to resign from Downing Street over his disastrous stewardship of Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign: “Younger voters might not know this but Britain simply didn’t have food before 1973.”

Put aside the fact that Timothy wasn’t born until 1980. He’s missing the point. EU membership vastly improved the quality of our diet and with it, our lives. It allowed unfettered access to a massive market, including the products that underpin the rightly lauded Mediterranean diet. We ate better. Any policy which means we will eat worse, that our lives and opportunities are less good than once they were, is surely a terrible thing.

Of course, there are bigger problems right now. There’s a cost of living crisis, exacerbated by Brexit. The economy is stunted by Brexit. Obscene numbers of people are using food banks.

The nation’s physical health is suffering because we don’t have the money to invest in the NHS, partly because of Brexit. But we can hold more than one thought in our head at the same time. We should see all of this as a continuum; as symptoms of a disease eating away at the body, one vital system at a time.

Plus, this issue is not restricted to the deli end of the food market. The Fresh Produce Consortium recently warned that the new border rules would add delays and millions in costs at a time of already acute food inflation. The British Retail Consortium, which represents the supermarkets, agrees. “New checks will add to the various cost pressures retailers are facing at a time when the cost of living is already high.”

And for what? The Brexit deal could have included an agreement to recognise each other’s food standards. That’s what lay at the heart of the EU project. But the UK wanted the freedom to do trade deals with third countries, allowing in products with lower standards than the EU permits. Hence, these disastrous checks.

Yes, Brexit is done. Yes, it’s happened. But no, I won’t move on. It’s a bloody mess!

About the Author: Jay Raynor is a renowned food critic and writer and has a regular column in The Guardian.


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