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Brandon Lewis, Healthy High Streets

Northern Ireland border checks will be phased in from October as part of new government plans to unilaterally extend the grace periods for food imports into the region.

The UK and the EU agreed last year to a series of grace periods for agri-foods entering Northern Ireland, including delaying the requirement for export health certificates (EHCs) until April, and suspending a ban on chilled meat preparations like sausages and mince until July.

But in a written statement on Wednesday, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis said the government was unilaterally taking several “temporary” steps to avoid “disruptive cliff edges” by extending the current grace periods until “at least 1 October 2021”.

In further guidance sent to traders and seen by The Grocer, the government confirmed it intended to introduce certification requirements in four phases from October.

Phase 1 will see the introduction of EHCs on fresh meat products, phase 2 will introduce EHCs for dairy products, as well as certificates for plants, seeds, and wine, phase 3 will introduce phytosanitary certificates for fruit & vegetables as well as EHCs for petfood; while phase 4 will cover all remaining certification such as those on ambient and composite products.

Ahead of the October deadline, the document said “there will be a review of the arrangements in advance of that point, with further guidance to be published”. 

The UK plans to roll out a new Digital Assistance Scheme alongside the phased approach. The DAS “digitises the certification and verification processes and is backed by a major injection of Government funding,” said the document.

The extension of the grace periods was welcomed by supermarkets “in both time and scope, even if it is unilaterally,” said Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. He added, however, that “there is still much to be delivered” such as an “auditable and certified supply chain to deliver a trusted trader scheme, and a veterinary agreement to remove frictions.”

The UK announced the changes without agreement from the EU, and it remains to be seen how Brussels will react. Theresa May’s former Brexit adviser, Raoul Ruparel, tweeted it was “hard to see how this is allowed under the Protocol. I suspect [the] UK gamble is that because its [sic] temporary and part of [a] step to full requirements, [the] scope for EU objection/action [is] limited.”

An EU official told Bloomberg that the move put the UK in breach of the Brexit deal, adding it was wasn’t an extension of a grace period because it wasn’t mutually agreed on.

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