With new Brexit checks on food imports to begin later this week, the government has been telling retailers it won’t turn away products over incomplete paperwork.

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The first phase of food import controls start on January 31, while the next phase in April raises more concerns

From Wednesday, European importers will have to provide health certificates for so-called “medium and high risk” animal and plant products coming into the UK, but Retail Week understands that the government has been telling retailers and suppliers it will take a “light touch” approach and won’t turn away deliveries with incorrect paperwork to avoid empty shelves and soaring prices.

The changes, due to take effect from January 31, are the first phase of the UK’s post-Brexit Border Target Operating Model stating that imports of plant and animal products will now require export health certificates.

From Wednesday, exporters in the EU will have to complete Phytosanitary Certificates (effectively health certificates) for their produce, which will then be signed off by a health official upon entering the UK.

The certificates must then be lodged by the importer on DEFRA’s Import of Products Animals, Food and Feed System to notify the enforcement authorities in the UK.

However, a source with an understanding of UK retail sentiment said Wednesday’s changes will have limited impact, as most large European suppliers are prepared for the new paperwork requirements, but added that smaller European suppliers may be less ready.

“We’re not too worried because most of the large suppliers of fruit and vegetables in the EU to the UK are just about ready for the first phase of changes. Only some of the smaller ones might have some problems – the little, specialist, more family-owned businesses that only export one or two very specific products.

“Most of the larger suppliers are definitely ready.”

Questions remain

That being said, there are greater concerns about the next phase of the post-Brexit checks due to start in April, which will add the need to conduct some physical checks on import consignments.

Head of trade policy at the British Chamber of Commerce William Bain says that 12 weeks out from the scheduled implementation of physical checks, there’s still a lack of clarity and detail from the government on how the new system will work in practice.

“What is going to be the mode of enforcement? Are the border authorities going to prioritise mobility and check things behind the border, so to speak, if there are issues with an electronic form or something, or are they going to stop containments at the border if there are these issues and turn goods away?

“What’s the scope for delays going to be? There’s still quite a lot of questions around the mode of enforcement from April which again we don’t have clarity from yet from the cabinet office or DEFRA,” he stated.

Logistics UK’s head of trade Nichola Mallon also called on the government to give more clarity around the border. 

“Logistics businesses have been pressing government for clarity on how border checks will be done on freight from the EU since the Brexit vote,” she said. “With only days until the first stage of the BTOM is to be introduced, why is the government providing conflicting and confusing information that will slow down the preparedness of the UK’s businesses to trade effectively with their EU suppliers?” 

The implementation of the post-Brexit checks, which have been delayed by the government five times since January 2021, is predicted to drive up the price of fruit and vegetables in the spring, with some experts also predicting shortages on certain lines.