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'Unfeasible' - Brexit border rules could cut shelf life of fresh food from EU by a fifth, say experts

New Brexit border regulations could reduce the shelf life of fresh food imported from mainland Europe by up to 20%, potentially rendering some EU deliveries unsellable, according to warnings from major food organisations.



The SPS Certification Working Group, representing 30 trade bodies responsible for £100bn of the UK's food supply, has declared the new requirement for importers to notify UK authorities a day prior to arrival as "unfeasible". This change could lead some European suppliers to cease their UK operations.


Under current arrangements, EU suppliers do not need to pre-notify the UK government before dispatching meat and dairy products, allowing for rapid delivery to the UK.


However, the upcoming border rules, effective from April, mandate at least a one-day notice before reaching a UK border post, raising concerns about significant delays for perishable items. Experts are particularly worried about the impact on products with very short shelf lives, like fresh, unfrozen meat and certain egg-containing products.


In a letter to Steve Barclay, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the group expressed that the one working day pre-notification requirement for perishable, short-shelf-life fresh foods and ingredients from the EU is impractical for just-in-time supply to Great Britain.


"A one-day delay in exportation can lead to a 20% loss in shelf life, ultimately making the food unsellable," the group stated, adding that these delays could render supplying the UK commercially nonviable for some EU companies.


The SPS Working Group, established three years ago, includes various food businesses, from farmers to food producers and hauliers. Members such as the Fresh Produce Consortium, Chilled Food Association, Dairy UK, and the Road Haulage Association, were formed in anticipation of the border target operating model's implementation. This model, starting from 31 January, will require European importers to provide health certificates for "medium- and high-risk" animal and plant products, followed by physical checks at the border by the end of April.


Karin Goodburn, Chair of the SPS and Director General of the Chilled Food Association, highlighted that the 24-hour notification rules would lead to food wastage. "You need a certain amount of time to move something fresh into the UK, to get it to shops and on the shelves," she explained. "If you take off the 20%, it destroys the ability to use much of that raw food material."


Peter Hardwick, policy adviser at the British Meat Processors Association, described the 24-hour pre-notification rule as "totally impractical". He noted that currently, a vehicle loaded in Ireland could be expected to reach a border within six to eight hours. The new rule would mean refrigerated lorries sitting idle, affecting the shelf life of the products.


The letter to Barclay included 16 different concerns from the food industry regarding the government's border plans, such as the lack of published details on the opening hours of border posts despite the imminent start date. It also warned that added bureaucracy and certification requirements could limit the ability to send different products in the same consignments, potentially curtailing imports, increasing food inflation, and reducing UK food security.


The Guardian understands that the government plans to initially adopt a pragmatic approach to the 24-hour pre-notification. Defra officials have indicated that if health certificates for products are deemed acceptable, late goods will not be held back.


A government spokesperson stated, "We remain committed to delivering the most advanced border in the world. The border target operating model is key to this, protecting the UK’s biosecurity from potentially harmful pests and diseases, and maintaining trust in our exports.


"We worked extensively with traders to ensure the new controls and requirements are clear and not burdensome – which is why low risk products face no additional certification or checks, while medium risk products will undergo reduced checks, minimising the risk of delays. We will continue to work closely with businesses across the UK as the controls are implemented."


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