The UK's food supply problems are at risk of getting worse because of additional Brexit red tape which will come into force in a matter of weeks, businesses have warned.
From 1 October, the UK will begin carrying out checks on paperwork that must be pre-completed using a government IT system for hours before the point of entry for imports of meat, dairy, and some other produce from the EU.
Then, from1 January, physical checks will begin on shipments of the same products, with goods that are not compliant at risk of being turned away, while at the same time pre-completed paperwork will need to be filed 24 hours in advance, a requirement likely to create major difficulties for exporters of fresh food.
The government said it had taken a “pragmatic” approach to the new checks on products of animal origin, animal by-products and high-risk foods imported from the EU, and adds that it had already delayed their introduction by six months to give businesses time to adapt.
Until now, while EU countries have rigorously enforced veterinary and food safety checks on shipments coming from Great Britain, the government has waived the requirement for goods going the other way.
Similar certification requirements and checks at the EU border caused chaos when the transition period ended at the start of the year, forcing some exporters to throw away goods.
The rules have also contributed to a “disastrous” decline in British food and drink exports to the EU this year, according to new analysis by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF).
Exports plummeted by £2bn, with the value of sales to Germany, Spain and Italy all down by more than a third, the FDF reported.
Imports from the EU also shrank by 11.2 per cent (or nearly £1.7bn) in a year, according to the analysis, which compared the first six months of this year with the same six months in 2020.
Some EU-based food importers say the additional cost and bureaucracy will make large numbers of shipments unviable, as has been the case for British food and drink exporters of products including cheese and shellfish.
Michael Szydlo, an entrepreneur whose company provides software for businesses importing goods from the EU to the UK, said the additional checks are only going to make the situation worse, while government software for logging declarations will cause delays.
“I still get calls from European companies now who say ‘we’ve heard we need to do some customs declarations. What is that?’”, said Mr Szydlo.
“Many companies simply don't know what to do yet.”
One lorry load of food going from Poland could require certificates covering 300 different products, Szydlo said.
Strict enforcement of food safety checks would risk causing more problems for British suppliers but the government insists businesses must be prepared for the October deadline.
A spokesperson said: “We have taken a pragmatic approach to [the introduction of checks], phasing them in over a number of months and implementing them six months later than originally planned to give businesses time to adapt.
“We have helped explain new processes, including by running webinars which have been widely attended, and over 11,000 individuals are already registered for the new systems being introduced from 1 October.”
But Mr Szydlo, who attended one of these webinars, said it had not been made clear that checks would be phased in.
A Whitehall source said that for the first three months after 1 October, goods will not be denied entry as a result of unintentional errors in documentation but rather importers would “receive feedback to ensure those errors are not repeated”.
Another Polish businessman, who imports meat into the UK from the EU, said: “The shortages you've seen now are nothing to what you are about to see.
“I think a lot of companies will be struggling because no one has had to do this paperwork for the past 40 years.
“I don't think any country is ready: the UK, Spain, Poland, Germany, nobody.”