The problem arises because Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the UK, will remain in the EU’s single market for goods, and will therefore be subject to strict rules of which food products will be permitted to enter. The UK and the EU are still discussing how the regulations will be applied in terms of food entering from Great Britain – but any resolution before the start of 2021 is looking unlikely.
The problem will not be resolved even if Lord David Frost and Michel Barnier strike a trade deal between now and December 31, because it is separate from these negotiations.
A Marks & Spencer spokesman told BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme that it was determined to offer the same range of products as it does in the rest of the UK.
However, it added: “To keep this promise, retailers need urgent answers from Government on several aspects of the NI protocol – particularly on certification processes and labelling.
The problem will not be solved by Michel Barnier and David Frost in trade negotiations
Martin Howe QC has already highlighted problems with labelling of goods
Whilst we have extensive contingency plans in place, if clarity is not given soon there is a risk to supply from the UK mainland
“Whilst we have extensive contingency plans in place, if clarity is not given soon there is a risk to supply from the UK mainland, which could limit customer choice in Northern Ireland.”
Both the Government and national supermarket chains are lobbying Brussels for clarity on the issue, but nothing has yet been decided.
Speaking today, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis told the BBC negotiations had intensified, acknowledging the importance of providing supermarkets with answers to their urgent questions on the subject.
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Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis
The problem stems from the EU’s requirement that products of animal origin – such as meat, milk, fish and eggs – need an Export Health Certificate (EHC) to enter the single market.
EHCs are expensive, and must be signed off by a vet, potentially adding thousands of pounds of the cost of a shipment.
Additionally, for some products, such as chilled mince and sausages, no EHCs are available, meaning such products could only be sourced locally or from within the EU.
In theory, that would mean they could not be shipped to Belfast from Liverpool – but could be brought there from France or Spain.
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Marks and Spencer customers in Northern Ireland are likely to face a reduced choice
With specific reference to the labelling issue identified by Marks & Spencer, Brexiteer Martin Howe in September highlighted significant problems which are rapidly looming for supermarket chains.
He told Express.co.uk “It’s probably not the most interesting area of law – but on the other hand if it goes wrong it could create very serious problems.
“Apparently the people involved in goods labelling think that the regulations will require, as from January 1, different labels on goods according to the UK law, from goods sold according to EU law.
“It’s to do with things like the EU requiring to have the name and address of someone in the EU who is responsible for the goods, that sort of thing.
Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s single market for goods after December 31
The problem is, and it may sound a totally trivial thing, under the law, if you’ve got a packet of frozen chips, for example, you are not allowed to sell them in the EU and therefore you would not be able to sell them in Northern Ireland.
“So if you are a supermarket which has a supply chain across the whole of the UK, what do you do?”
Mr Howe added: “One fears that as from January 1 you would have to have completely separate supply chains just for labelling reasons.”
“What about the time needed to make the changes and reprint the labels and so on?
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
“By itself, this could lead to food shortages in Northern Ireland.
“If it was just UK law you would expect the UK Government to pass a statutory instrument to make sure it is all okay.
“But the problem is, because of the direct effect of the Northern Ireland protocol, it may be very difficult for the UK easily to do that.
“They might need to do an overwrite on that one as well to make things work.”