Agri-food sector calls for foodstuffs ‘ fast-track’ in case of no-deal Brexit

In 2017, EU27 exports of agri-food products to the UK amounted to €41 billion while the UK's exports to the EU27 reached €17 billion. [SHUTTERSTOCK]

European farmers, agri-traders and food makers are lobbying EU negotiators to consider unilateral contingency measures for foodstuffs, as current plans would not be enough to avoid a harsh impact of a no-deal Brexit on the agri-food sector.

The three organisations have urged the EU to consider ‘pragmatic and temporary’ measures for agrifood products, listing a series of suggested contingency measures related to customs, labelling, food safety and logistics.

On Tuesday (5 February) farmers’ association Copa-Cogeca, the umbrella group of agricultural commodities traders CELCAA and manufacturers’ organization FoodDrinkEurope met the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

The coalition called for special measures to mitigate the damage of a no-deal Brexit on the food supply chain and on the functioning of the Single Market in a letter to Barnier the week before.

Employing 44 million people across Europe and the UK, the agri-food sector is likely to be one of the most affected by Brexit.

In 2017, EU27 exported €41 billion worth of foodstuffs to the UK while the UK’s exports to the EU27 reached €17 billion.

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A top EU official warned Monday (4 February) that the prospect of Britain crashing out of the bloc next month looks more likely than ever, as Prime Minister Theresa May sought to reassure foreign investors worried about a chaotic Brexit.

A wonderful single market asked Mella Frewen, Director general at FoodDrinkEurope, why the European Commission should prioritise food makers over other sectors in preparing contingency plans.

Shelf life is the main reason, said Frewen. “You can transport books and they do not go bad or they do not create safety problems, but perishable goods like foodstuffs can even become unsafe,” she said.

“A lot of SMEs in the industry have been working in a wonderful single market for years and they have never been prepared to export outside of the EU,” she added.

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“We need some sort of fast-track to get products quickly through customs,” said Frewen, pointing up the unfeasibility of stockpiling perishable products or having them stuck at the borders.

In terms of food safety, she also argued that the UK needs to be kept involved “somehow” in the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) which enables rapid responses when risks to public health are detected in food chain, as well as in the Administrative Assistance and Cooperation (AAC) food fraud system and the EU Food safety agency EFSA.

“It seems more wishful thinking at the moment, but it is of greater importance,” she concluded.

Food or medicine?

Some pressure on the EU agri-food sector has come from the British side. UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock made it clear during a recent parliamentary hearing that medicines will be prioritised over food in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

In a Q&A with Brussel-based reporters, EURACTIV asked Marco Settembri, CEO for Europe of food giant Nestlé, if the food industry is going to end up battling with the pharmaceutical sector for priority.

“There is no such competition, but there are certain products, and foodstuffs are among them, that need to have as little friction as possible at customs,” he said.

“We need to be prepared and take up food as a priority,” he added, saying that if medicine was considered as the first priority, foodstuffs should immediately follow.

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UK agri-food sector

On the sidelines of the event Food Matters live held in London, spoke to David Read, Chairman of the provider of food service Prestige Purchasing.

He confirmed that, even across the Channel, the mood among businesses in the agri-food sector is one of frustration about the continuing uncertainty.

“Because manufacturers don’t know what future brings, they cannot make plans and they cannot make the best decisions to ensure the continuity of supply,” he said.

According to him, Brexit will have a clear impact on supply chain costs and on availability for both ingredients and final products.

“As a consequence, manufacturers need to identify where the pressure is going to be, and if they find reliance on products from the EU, they need to make sure they can still get these products,” he said.

Adopting tariffs or restoring customs controls at the border could have an impact on margins, he added.

Importing meat from the EU, for instance, would need physical inspections at the borders and this requires more time, more costs and infrastructure that does not currently exist at either the Irish border or the port of Dover in Kent, the nearest point in Britain to the continent.

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