Two food manufacturers and a major international distributor say the ongoing uncertainty regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol is likely to cause supply outages in Northern Ireland, ITV News has learned.
Tate & Lyle Sugars has told its customers that, as it stands, the company will struggle to deliver its products there in the New Year.
Joel Hills on the implications on the ongoing uncertainty surrounding supply outages in Northern Ireland
The company, which supplies all the major supermarkets in Northern Ireland - including Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and Marks and Spencer - has advised retailers to devise contingency plans to source sugar and syrups from elsewhere.
Tate & Lyle Sugars publicly backed the Brexit campaign on the eve of the EU referendum on June 23, 2016.
The Northern Ireland protocol is part of the withdrawal agreement, negotiated by Boris Johnson’s government, that saw the UK leave the EU on January 31 this year.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK but will continue to be part of the Single Market and enforce the EU’s customs rules when the transition period expires at the end of this year.
The protocol avoids the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland but creates a notional customs border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
The government has promised companies “unfettered access” on goods flowing west to east but not in the other direction.
With seven weeks to go until the end of the transition period there is still a lack of clarity regarding how customs procedures and labelling will work and whether or not goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to tariffs and quotas.
On a conference call this morning, organised by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Associated British Foods (ABF) and Culina - a logistics company - also expressed alarm at the ongoing ambiguity about the future trading arrangements.
The “Food Resilience Industry Forum” call was attended by retailers, manufacturers and distributors and was chaired by Chris Tyas, a former Nestlé executive, who joined Defra as Director of Food Supply after panic buying at supermarkets during the first lockdown in March.
According to three participants, Ian Mace, Head of Government and Policy at Associated British Foods, said the company could foresee difficulties getting some of its fresh produce and those of its suppliers into Northern Ireland.
He said there was an urgent need for clarity on the new trading arrangements and that ABF’s bread business could be impacted.
Bread has a short shelf life.
It is baked, packaged, shipped and sold in quite short order.
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ABF has a factory in Belfast which produces Kingsmill for the Northern Ireland market but supplies are topped-up by deliveries from Scotland.
On the same call, Steve Winwood, Chief Operating Officer at Culina Logistics Ltd, said that some British-based customers are deciding not to move food to Northern Ireland until the trading situation becomes clearer.
Culina Group specialises in delivering chilled, ambient, fresh and baked goods.
Its website states that it has 2,400 vehicles and 75 depots across the UK and Ireland.
Morgan Mclernon, a Northern Irish business Culina acquired in 2017, delivers on behalf of all the major retailers including Asda, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, M&S, Morrisons, Iceland, Tesco, Waitrose and Amazon Fresh.
A recent survey by the Food and Drink Federation found that more than one in five food and drink manufacturers planned to suspend deliveries from Britain into Northern Ireland when the transition period ends, until the new customs requirement are disclosed.
In a statement, Tate & Lyle Sugars said: “As a responsible supplier, we have been working with our NI customers on solutions that will allow us to continue supplying NI shoppers after January 1.
"To support that, we need the EU and UK to agree common sense rules that prioritise the NI consumer by recognising there is little risk from allowing existing trade to continue.
"We know officials on both sides are working hard to negotiate exactly this to ensure security of supply.”
Associated British Food and Culina declined to comment.
A spokesperson for the UK government said: “The UK and the EU have committed to an intensified process of engagement to resolve all outstanding issues with the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol which includes securing the flexibilities we need for trade from GB to NI.
"This is particularly important for supermarkets, where we have been clear specific solutions are required.
"We will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive as discussions continue with the EU through the Joint Committee process."