Thousands of British food businesses could be left without the correct labelling required to continue selling to the European Union and Northern Ireland after the UK government missed an industry deadline to advise them on what new rules they will have to follow.

Britain will leave the EU’s trading rules at the end of this year, after which the labels that British food and drink businesses currently use will no longer be legally recognised on the continent.

UK trade associations have repeatedly warned Johnson’s government that the end of August was the absolute deadline for issuing guidance that will allow them to produce new labels in time for January 1.

However, with just four months to go, they are still waiting for clarity from the UK government on the labelling rules they will have to follow in 2021.
“With the transition period nearing its end, UK-EU negotiations still ongoing and updates to official guidance still awaited, the food industry has already practically run out of time to process the necessary label changes ahead of the January 2021 deadline,” the Food & Drink Federation’s Labelling and Enforcement Manager Alex Turtle told Business Insider.

He added: “The UK’s exit from the EU requires food labels to be adapted as never before due to the unique situation of the country’s status change. These label changes are complex, and clarity from the Government is urgently required in order for industry to be able to create compliant food labels post-exit.”

UK government insiders and senior business figures say labelling is one of the most complex elements of preparing the country for life outside of the trading bloc.

Michael Bell, the Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association’s CEO, told Business Insider: “Like an onion, there is layer, layer, after layer when it comes to labelling, and every layer would bring you to tears.” Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said: “Labelling isn’t something that you can fudge. It has to be exact if you want goods to be able to go to market.”

The Food & Drink Federation has called on Johnson’s UK government to include in any free trade deal with the EU an adjustment period of at least twelve months in order to give businesses enough time to produce new labels.

Labour’s Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Karin Smyth urged UK government ministers “to be honest,” telling Business Insider: “Come what may, businesses in Northern Ireland will be trading under new rules in four months’ time and they urgently need clarity on the requirements they need to put in place.

“Leaving them in the dark until the last minute is irresponsible, and will force businesses and consumers to pay the price for the lack of preparation from ministers.”

UK government officials say they hope to publish guidance on changes to labelling as soon as possible.

‘The government is sleepwalking into possible food shortages in Northern Ireland’

There is particular concern about the trade of food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Unlike the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland will continue to follow EU trading rules from next year, in order to avoid a contentious hard border with the Republic of Ireland. In practice, this could force British exporters to Northern Ireland to use different labels to those used to package food sold elsewhere in the UK. This would seemingly contradict Prime Minister’s Johnson’s promise that trade across the Irish Sea would remain unfettered after Brexit.

Ministers are yet to clarify whether companies in Great Britain that export food to Northern Ireland, like major supermarkets, will be required to use different packaging to food sold elsewhere in the UK. The Food & Drink Federation’s Alex Turtle told Business Insider that “government direction on the labelling implications of the Northern Ireland Protocol remains outstanding.”

There are fears in Northern Ireland that there could be food shortages at the beginning of next year if British exporters do not have the correct labelling to sell food to the province. A senior business figure who wished to remain anonymous told Business Insider: “The government is sleepwalking into possible food shortages in Northern Ireland. If we don’t get some sort of derogation or agreement [with the EU], this will be happening. There will be problems.”

The uncertainty is also fuelling concerns, previously reported by Business Insider, that the increased cost of trading Northern Ireland will lead major retailers to pull out of the province.

“This new labelling regime could put people off sending goods to Northern Ireland due to the increased costs involved which will impact on consumer choice in Northern Ireland,” the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium’s Aodhan Connolly warned. The Northern Ireland Food & Drink Association’s Michael Bell said “a significant amount of friction in terms of time and money could make the Northern Irish market less attractive to Great Britain suppliers.”