Comment: Import delays give lie to food price claims

The fifth postponement of checks at the UK border show that promises of cheaper food post-Brexit were always an illusion, says Nick Hughes.

If at first you don’t succeed, delay and delay again. That seems to be the guiding principle for the UK government over its new post-Brexit border regime.

The border target operating model (BTOM), to give it its official title, has had more false starts than an over-eager 100 metre runner – five in total if we’re counting (which we are).

The latest delay of three months means health certificates on meat and dairy products signed by a vet will now need to accompany imports from January 2024, not October 2023 as previously planned, with physical border inspections on medium and high-risk foods pushed back until April next year. Experts have previously warned that a lack of checks at the border has made the UK a target destination for food criminals.

Designing a brand new food import regime for trade with our biggest partner was always going to be a messy, time-consuming process; yet such complexity was barely acknowledged during campaigning ahead of the 2016 referendum on EU membership. Indeed, part of the argument for a ‘hard Brexit’ made by cheerleaders such as Jacob Rees Mogg was that the cost of food would come down significantly once the UK was set free from the EU’s protectionist grasp.

The constant delays to the new border regime (including one authorised by Rees Mogg himself) is surely the final nail in the coffin for these untruths. Part of the reason the UK government is reluctant to press ahead with the new system is its impact on food inflation. This “is expected to be minor, standing at less than 0.2% across three years”, according to the government press release confirming the fresh round of delays, but it’s an additional cost for businesses (and ultimately consumers) to bear nonetheless.

Indeed, note the government’s attempt to make the 0.2% figure sound almost incidental and then compare it to the language used in announcing the new “mega deal” to join the “vast” Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) which is expected to add just 0.08% to GDP over ten years.

Geography rules

However much ministers attempt to spin the realities of global trade they can’t spin the basics of geography; it’s a little less than 30 miles between the key ports of Dover and Calais as the crow flies hence why 23% of all the food consumed in the UK in 2022 originated in the EU while no other continent accounted for more than 4%.

I spoke to a number of haulage companies during the summer for an article for Cold Chain News (the cold chain being a sector hugely impacted by the new import regime). They were clear that the cost of health certification, processing charges and physical inspection would run into several hundred pounds per consignment with products of animal origin bearing the brunt of the costs.

The impact will not just be on the price paid at the till or table but on customer choice as well. While large buyers like the big supermarkets are able (albeit grudgingly) to adapt their operations to minimise friction (and more able to push the extra cost back onto the producer), for the smaller businesses who are takers rather than shapers of supply chain dynamics the implications of the new rules are potentially far more serious.

Those businesses, including restaurants and caterers selling artisan deli-type products like speciality cheeses or meats, are likely to experience particular difficulties sourcing a ready supply of affordable products. These foods tend to rely on the groupage model of distribution whereby a number of producers join forces to export small batches of goods on a single lorry. Each batch containing meat or dairy will require its own health certificate. For some EU producers the cost and hassle will simply not be worthwhile.

Demand shift

There is a potential sustainability angle here too. The fact certain types of meat will become more expensive could dampen demand for those meats more commonly imported from the EU such as pork and chicken. But that demand could simply shift to animals for which UK self-sufficiency is high, like beef and lamb (which studies tend to show have a larger carbon footprint), rather than boost consumption of lower-impact fruit or vegetables (which many experts believe is essential in order to achieve net-zero and reverse biodiversity loss). 

Indeed, the UK is also heavily reliant on the EU for the supply of fresh produce, which accounted for 35% of vegetables and 26% of fruit consumed domestically in 2021. The UK fresh produce sector celebrated a significant win following publication of the latest version of the BTOM with EU edible fresh produce confirmed as being exempt from pre-notification requirements or UK border inspections, a decision that will prevent additional border costs of around £250m annually, according to the Fresh Produce Consortium.

Yet no commodity will experience the exact same free flow in trade as enjoyed within the single market. It’s fanciful to suppose the supply of fresh produce will not be impacted in some way – in terms of cost and/or availability – by requirements for extra paperwork and the likelihood of longer queues at the border. That’s on top of the impact climate change is already having on fruit and veg supplies. (Maybe it really is time to develop that horticulture strategy?)

The government can delay the start of the new border model all it likes (and who would bet against further delays that push introduction of the BTOM past the date of the next election), but the fundamentals of how food is traded will not shift in any meaningful way. As Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, summarised in a recent article for The Grocer: “The latest delay is not a signal of a rethink of UK policy on post-Brexit food trade. It’s simply a firebreak for an administration desperately trying to extinguish an inflation crisis it is largely powerless to combat.”

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