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Brexit challenges for Northern Ireland

Brexit challenges for Northern Ireland

Michael Bell, Executive Director of the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association, discusses the challenges ahead in delivering ‘frictionless’ trade across the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

As a professional food scientist, the first thing I need to do is set my title in context: Northern Ireland is uniquely affected by Brexit.

Agri-food is Northern Ireland’s biggest Industrial sector. Total employment across the ‘eating ecosystem’ (feed, farming, processing, packaging and retailing etc.) is some 100,000 or approximately one fifth of the entire private sector employment. The main sectors are chicken, beef and dairy. Turnover of the sector is £4.7bn, with GB multiple retailers the biggest customers. But this still does not explain the true differences between England and Northern Ireland.

England imports 40% of its food, Northern Ireland exports 80% of its food. I hope you will agree with me, these are starkly different contexts.

Next an inconvenient truth: the UK has a land border with the EU. It happens to be between NI and ROI, but the legislation is clear – it is a UK-EU border. It is 300 miles in length and has approximately 260 road crossings. Of all trade across it, some 55% is agri-food representing approximately £750m per year. Trade flows change direction with season. In addition, much product is transported to the south east of Great Britain via Dublin (i.e. UK-EU-UK). Our Government, the Irish Government and the European Union have stated that it must remain ‘frictionless’. Delivering frictionless will be an ‘interesting’ challenge.

The border is complex and difficult, and food is very important to Northern Ireland. Brexit therefore raises challenges in the following areas:

1 People

The Industry employs 50-90% foreign nationals depending on seasonality. Due to currency movement, a chill factor from Brexit and surging home economies, labour is difficult to source. In addition, thousands of workers commute daily across the UK-EU border in both directions.

2 Sanitary and phytosanitary controls

EU law says a professional veterinarian must sign as the competent authority on a meat certificate. Most UK veterinarians are foreign nationals. Reciprocity is critical. ‘I believe in your standard of controls and you believe in mine’. Fipronil in eggs, for example, has recently undermined this.

There has  never been a greater need for IFST’s professional objective food science voice – underpinned, as it is, by evidence.

3 ‘Online’ and ‘Offline’ standards

This includes actual product standards (Online) and influencing (Offline) standards e.g. environmental. Online standards are well recognised. Chlorinated chicken and hormone treated beef were mentioned on the BBC’s Andrew Marr show recently. Standards define trading and are coming under intense political scrutiny.

Offline standards are less well recognised. Agro-chemicals are coming under more scrutiny and the EU-US scientific differential may well increase. There has never been a greater need for IFST’s professional objective food science voice – underpinned, as it is, by evidence.

4 Trading Tariffs

Most WTO food tariffs are in excess of 20% and are not commercially viable. The average net margin for food manufacturing in Northern Ireland is 2.8% (Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs). Margins are too small to entertain WTO tariffs. Trading would immediately cease.

5 Logistics

Fresh food coming into the Republic of Ireland in many cases is a forward shipment from an EU country into UK supply. Rearranging this will require considerable new stockholding facilities.

6 Country of Origin definitions

If components of a product have crossed the UK-EU border several times in its production, what shall we define it as, and why? Tariffs are amended by Country of Origin component makeup.

7 Trading dispute and error resolution, method and timeframe

Food is the fastest traded business and the champion of ‘Just in Time’.

Retailers typically have a one-hour delivery slot. Error resolution, will have to be very efficient or we will add a lot of expense and waste to the system.

8 Law and legislation

US, EU, or Chinese standards, some or all? Who is the referee? Which direction of travel will we migrate in terms of food safety and animal welfare standards? These are hugely significant questions.

9 Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) replacement(s)

UK farmers depend on support, especially with poor returns commercially, and weather challenges. The signals they receive from government are critical to the future of farming and current investment decisions.

10 European Maritime and Fisheries Fund (EMFF) replacement(s)

UK fisheries require support as most product is exported and weather is a constant challenge. Guidance and support from government are critical to the future of fishing and investment decisions. Boundary issues may resurface.

11 New UK Government capacity to regulate/engage/ listen

UK Government has been recruiting significant numbers of new staff to address Brexit. Despite this, few guidance notes to date have been issued to help industry navigate the transition.

Which direction of travel will we migrate in terms of food safety and animal welfare standards? These are hugely significant questions.

12 Timeframe(s)

As I write on 25th July 2018, Brexit is either 247 days or 978 days away (30 Mar 2019 or 29 Mar 2021). Time is very short when for example, it takes over 700 days to make a sirloin steak.

This is not an exhaustive list. Each meeting I attend is a new continuing professional development (CPD) opportunity to learn about another product specific issue.

Former US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld said in 2002:

‘Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.’

We live in unknown times.

Michael Bell

CDir CSci FIFST FIoD, Executive Director, Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association

71-75 Percy Street, Belfast Mills, Belfast, BT13 2HW


Telephone 02890 241010


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