Post-Brexit supply chain disruption will lead to ‘gaps on food shelves’, BRC warns

©iStock/Evegeny Gromov

Flexibility and imagination may be in short supply during ongoing Brexit talks but the UK also faces the prospect of ‘gaps on food shelves’ if a deal is not agreed, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) warns.

In a report published last week, the trade body spoke of delay and disruptions in the supply chain along with an increase in imported food costs.

Additional red tape at ports, docks and border controls could cause “gaps on shelves” the consortium predicted, as it urged the government to take action to prevent costs being passed on to consumers.

Whilst the government has acknowledged the need to avoid a cliff-edge after Brexit day, a customs union in itself won’t solve the problem of delays at ports,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium (BRC).

“So to ensure supply chains are not disrupted and goods continue to reach the shelves, agreements on security, transit, haulage, drivers, VAT and other checks will be required to get systems ready for March 2019."

‘Delays of up to two to three days’

According to the BRC, the UK imports 79% of its food from the EU. This figure consists of beverages (43%), fruit and vegetables (21%), meat and fish (14%), cereal products (7%) and other (16%).

Exiting the EU without a deal could mean an additional 180,000 firms drawn into customs declarations for the first time, the UK’s revenue and customs department said.

They also predicted the number of customs declarations in the UK without a post-Brexit customs deal would increase by 55 million to 255 million per year. The BRC said this would mean new delays at ports of up to two to three days.

The report also refers to the complications Brexit poses to goods crossing the Republic of Ireland border.

“It will be a priority for both the UK and the EU to ensure the border does not make the dumping of goods on markets easier and the ability to track food through all stages of production harder than at present,” it said.

“At the same time, avoiding a 'hard' customs and trading border is a key objective in the negotiations given the economic harm businesses could face from additional red tape and disruption to their business models.”

Chorus of warnings

Warnings aimed at the UK government are appearing thick and fast as similar concerns have been expressed by a number of trade associations and academics.

Their comments make clear the challenges that lie ahead as March 2019—the date the UK leaves the EU—fast approaches.

A position paper, prepared by the Science Policy Research Unit (SPRU) at the University of Sussex, points to a lack of clarity in the UK food or agriculture sector, characterised by the absence of a coherent governmental food policy.

Its authors believe this lack of vision and planning will adversely affect prices, quality, supply and the environment even with the prospect of a ‘soft’ Brexit.

Commenting on the UK’s latest Brexit position paper, the Food and Drink Federation’s (FDF) director general Ian Wright commented: “FDF's priority is to ensure businesses can trade both finished goods and raw materials freely and without friction as part of any interim transition deal with the EU27 and through a future UK-EU trading relationship.

“We are pleased to see that today's paper recognises the challenges for UK food and drink products on the market at the point of exit and that government is considering how to mitigate against the worst case scenario.

“However, as last week's record export figures from FDF highlight, Europe is an essential market for UK food and drink and we urge the government to secure a transition deal swiftly to protect consumer choice and to prevent any unnecessary disruption.”

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