Brexit-Inspired Food Import Checks Fuel Inflation Fears, Despite Delays

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In what appears to be an ill-timed burden, food importers grapple once more with the addition of new post-Brexit red tape and charges. Post-Brexit checks and charges on foodstuffs imported from the European Union have been put on hold for the fifth time by ministers this week, as concerns mount over food price inflation.

For the first time ever, the government publicly asserted that these further charges and formalities, though expected to inflate the overall cost of living by a mere 0.2%, would inevitably fuel inflation. The commencement of these inspections is now anticipated for late April 2024.

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Although the delay was argued on the premise of food price anxiety by the Treasury, the implications will surely be felt when these changes take effect next year. A significant fraction of this undesirable hike in food import inflation emanates from a “common user charge” imposed on “each consignment” accessing via Dover or the Eurotunnel for inspection at the newly established colossal facility at Sevington, Kent.

This charge, possibly peaking at £43, might be an affordable issue for larger importers, but for some smaller importers of European food, it could prove exorbitant. Furthermore, consignments would require pricy approval from certified veterinarians.

These additional charges and inspections, marking an abrupt departure from decades of smooth, tariff-free commerce, were a foreseeable outcome of the Brexit deal finalised with the EU in 2020.

There is a growing unease among farming groups that, while UK exports are subject to comprehensive EU controls, imports from the EU into the UK remain unchecked, thereby creating an uneven playing field. There is also a significant apprehension regarding biosecurity owing to the absence of checks.

While the broad food industry welcomes this tactical postponement to spring, a time when the UK is less dependent on EU food imports, the extra charges and bureaucratic fuss have been dubbed the “food import tax”.

There is lingering doubt over the execution of these changes, considering the impending general election next year. Nevertheless, ministers affirm the inevitability of these moves and pledge to mitigate the consequential bureaucracy.

The most recent framework for UK trade border operation justifies these modifications, asserting that the “repercussions of a significant outbreak of plant or animal disease on the economy could be far graver” than the nominal 0.2% surge in inflation.

However, should the Labour Party win the upcoming election, it intends to negotiate a veterinary deal with the EU, prioritizing putting food on tables swiftly and affordably, thereby minimizing these checks.

Their rationale builds on precedents set in EU deals with Switzerland and New Zealand, which curtailed the need for new bureaucracy and charges on food commerce to and from Europe. But, this would likely limit Britain’s ability to diverge from EU regulations concerning gene-editing and certain fertiliser use.

However, regardless of the impending changes, the food industry has one eye trained on political polls, gauging the possibility that these checks, if launched in April, could be promptly repealed, or may not be enforced at all. A sixth delay is certainly not beyond the bounds of possibility.