Photographer: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg

Brexit Delays Endanger U.K.'s Fresh Food Supply, Retailers Warn

  • Dutch tomatoes, Spanish oranges could languish at ports
  • U.K. needs more investment to prevent delays, group says

U.K. shoppers could be deprived of fresh Spanish oranges and prime cuts of Irish beef unless the government quickly smooths out post-Brexit customs processes, the British Retail Consortium warned.

The number of inbound shipments of goods requiring checks would more than quadruple to 255 million per year if the U.K. leaves the European Union without a deal, the trade group, which represents retailers including Tesco Plc and Marks & Spencer Group Plc, said in a report Wednesday. The country needs to invest more in its roads and ports to prevent delays, it said.

The scale of the task is being exacerbated by the slow progress of negotiations, increasing the likelihood that a transitional customs arrangement won’t be hashed out before the U.K.’s expected departure from the bloc in 2019. In addition to tariffs, the U.K. and EU must reach agreements on issues from haulage and value-added-tax levies to checks on the origin and safety of goods, in order to minimize delays at ports, the BRC said.

“A customs union in itself won’t solve the problem of delays,” BRC Chief Executive Officer Helen Dickinson said in the report. “We want to work with the government to develop a system which works for consumers, so that there’s no difference in terms of the availability of affordable, quality products.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned Tuesday that the U.K.’s Brexit position papers lacked clarity and that trade wouldn’t be discussed until divorce terms are agreed.

Perishable foods are among the products most at risk. The U.K. imports about half the food it eats and in 2016 sourced a total of 22.4 billion pounds ($29 billion) worth of meat, fish, dairy products, fruit and vegetables from other countries, according to the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

“If we don’t have a frictionless customs arrangement there will be huge delays and a huge cost to the industry,” Fresh Produce Consortium CEO Nigel Jenney said in a phone interview. Individual retailers have been reluctant to speak about Brexit for fear of alienating consumers on opposite sides of the issue.

Food Safety

Among the issues that the BRC wants the government to address are food safety and veterinary clearance for meat at the U.K.’s 21 border inspection points, which aren’t currently required on EU produce. Port officials now check 50 percent of poultry containers and 20 percent of beef, lamb and pork shipments from outside the bloc, according to the International Meat Trade Association.

If the U.K. leaves without a deal, goods such as Dutch tomatoes could be delayed by two to three days at ports, raising the cost of shipments and storage and causing perishable items to rot, the retail consortium said. British grocers would struggle to replace lost imports with domestic items because of limited supply, putting upward pressure on prices.

“It would require massive structural changes to land use and increased manufacturing capacity to significantly increase food production in the U.K.,” Nick von Westenholz, director of EU exit and international trade at the National Farmers Union, said by phone.

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