This article, by BRC Policy Director for Food and Sustainability Andrew Opie, is adapted from an article originally published in Retail Week on 21 May.
The UK’s food supply chain has proved to be much more robust during Covid 19 than many had predicted. It did require huge amounts of investment and hard work by retailers, supported by their suppliers, Government and of course the BRC, but it delivered all the food and essential items people needed from February onwards.
However, just as we recover from this immense challenge, another looms large on the horizon - a disorderly Brexit. With no clarity yet on what the final agreement will look like on border controls and operation of the Irish protocol, retailers and their suppliers have no idea how to import food or to move it to Northern Ireland from Great Britain. This is likely to present an even bigger challenge than Covid, challenges that can't be overcome just by hard work and extra support in the UK supply chain.
The main difference is that, during Covid, food was always available in the supply chain but the problem was moving it onto the shelves quickly enough to keep pace with unprecedented demand. Nor was there any problem moving food within the UK.
There were fears during Covid that our reliance on imported European food would be a major issue for fresh fruit and vegetables, while impacting on wider food availability. We are particularly reliant on European imports through the first four to five months of the year. However, even though many of the countries key to our sourcing, such as Italy and Spain, were badly affected by the virus, imports continued to arrive.
That may not be the case in January 2021.
From January 2021 the UK and EU will implement border controls. As it stands we do not know what import procedures will be, how restrictive they will be, how they will impact on flows of food across the Channel and crucially how well prepared those key Channel ports are, particularly on the British side. In January, 90% of our lettuces, 80% of our tomatoes and 70% of our soft fruit is imported from the EU across the Channel. Disruption at these ports, whether due to an ignorance of procedures or a lack of capacity to carry out checks, will have a major impact on fresh produce with short shelf lives.
Due to the volume of imports required, there is no alternative to sourcing from the EU or avoiding the Channel crossings, the quickest and best available route. Unlike during Covid, the food may simply not be there in time in the supply chain to meet consumer demand.
The second challenge is moving food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Under the protocol, the UK has accepted that checks will be necessary to satisfy the EU that there is no threat to the single market. Those checks could be extremely onerous for food retailers, adding huge cost and time to deliveries from Great Britain. As Northern Irish supermarkets are reliant on supply from Great Britain, this is a major problem and will affect the price and availability of food for consumers.
As we saw in Covid, retailers are incredibly resilient and adaptable. However, the checks they could face to move food to Northern Ireland - enormous bureaucracy for just in time deliveries - may be unsurmountable.
So the challenge we face may well be greater than that during Covid 19 but it is avoidable:
Firstly, we need an agreement that works for consumers; reduced friction at borders to allow food to continue to flow as currently and avoids unnecessary tariffs.
Secondly, we need robust but practical checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that are robust but practical and reflect responsible businesses who invest in compliance.
Finally, we need clarity for all food businesses on the import process and procedures; they need to understand what is required and embed new systems well ahead of the end of the year to ensure supply isn’t interrupted in January.
We understand negotiations are ongoing but the lack of clarity on what the UK’s import system will look like, or even confirmation that our key ports are ready to handle them, is extremely unsettling. With around 200 days to go we need that clarity urgently and the same close working between Government and food retailers that was so important to meeting the challenge of Covid 19.