Milk, butter, meat, fish and vegetables will be labelled “not for EU” across the whole of the UK, and not just Northern Ireland, under Brexit plans being discussed by the Government and supermarkets.
Retailers have demanded more details from officials in meetings over the new labelling rules, which are part of Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework agreement with the EU, and start coming into force in October.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith demanded the Prime Minister ditch the “ridiculous” regulations, which would apply in Britain from Oct 2024, even though mainland Britain is an island with no land border with the EU.
“They should drop it. It will be seen as ludicrous,” the former Tory leader said in comments that could damage Mr Sunak further after the Conservatives’ drubbing in local elections.
“This is not why we left the EU. We were meant to be leaving the EU to deregulate, not to over-regulate.”
“There is no good reason why food produced and sold in any part of the United Kingdom should be labelled “not for EU”, much less if it is sold in mainland Great Britain,” said former Cabinet minister David Jones.
Nigel Dodds, the DUP peer, said it was “nonsense” that the labels would appear in Liverpool, Harrogate and Leeds, as well as Northern Ireland.
“This is a massive added cost and inconvenience on all British producers. These stickers have to go on every single individual prepackaged food item,” he said.
Impact British businesses
He warned that it would also impact British businesses exporting food to the EU and condemn them to extra costs.
“This is a proportionate and necessary means of ensuring goods moving in the green lane will only be sold to consumers in Northern Ireland,” a Defra spokesman said and added the Government would support businesses through the changes.
The labelling requirements can be met in a variety of ways, including on the label itself or over-stickering, and are seen by officials as vital to ensure the same goods are on the shelves across the whole UK, without supply chains changing in Northern Ireland.
A European Union official also defended the new rules and said Brussels had “worked hard to find joint solutions with the UK to ease the movement of goods from GB to NI”
“This is important to protect the Single Market. The requirements will be introduced in a phased and transparent manner,” the official said.
Northern Ireland continued to follow hundreds of EU rules after Brexit to prevent a hard Irish border with EU member Ireland in a treaty which grants lucrative dual access to both the UK and European markets.
Border checks were moved to the Irish Sea and have now been reduced by Mr Sunak’s new Brexit deal, which was agreed in February.
From October, British food sent to Northern Ireland supermarkets can be put in the “green lane.” This spares the goods Irish Sea border checks for EU standards, provided they carry the “not for EU” label.
The label reassures Brussels that the food, which escapes checks to see if it adheres to European rules, is less likely to cross from Northern Ireland into EU member Ireland.
But in a concession to Brussels, Mr Sunak agreed the “not for EU” label would eventually apply on many staples of British shelves.
UK officials also believe the UK-wide label would spare producers having to do costly separate labelling runs for the GB and much smaller NI market of about 2m people.
Labels for meat, milk and dairy are pencilled in to go UK-wide from October next year, if devolved governments in Wales and Scotland agree, and be put on fruit, vegetables and fish sold in Britain from July 2025.
Deadline too tight
Retailers fear this October’s deadline for the labels in Northern Ireland will be too tight, especially as details on which products will be covered by the requirement are still lacking.
“If we don’t see guidance soon and it is workable there will be problems in October for supply chains,” said Andrew Opie, of the British Retail Consortium. “Everyone wants to make this work so it’s probably worth the UK having a discussion with the EU now about compliance rather than waiting until closer to October”.
The Government has agreed to subsidise the cost of introducing the new label to ensure that friction over the Irish sea border can be eased.
Peter Summerton, managing director of hauliers McCulla Ireland, predicted that the Government would have to subsidise businesses to the tune of “tens of million of pounds”.
Even then that would not stop supply chains for Northern Ireland shifting from British firms to EU ones, especially in the Republic, he told The Telegraph.
But Sarah Hards, of AM Logistics, also in Northern Ireland, said the new Brexit deal was “vastly superior” to the alternatives on offer.
She insisted that if the new arrangements got up and running, British supply chains to Northern Ireland would prove stronger and cheaper than European alternatives.