Agri firms raise concerns on no-deal Brexit plans to avoid hard border

Major recruitment of customs officers needed to manage farm- or factory-gate checks

EU and Irish officials are exploring the possibility of carrying out “factory gate” customs checks. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

EU and Irish officials are exploring the possibility of carrying out “factory gate” customs checks. Photograph: Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

 

Two of the State’s largest agri-food businesses have raised concerns about practical measures being considered for checks on food and animal health to avoid a hard Irish border in a no-deal Brexit.

A disorderly UK exit from the European Union without an agreement poses the greatest risk to the agri sector given the volume of trade between Ireland and the UK, making no-deal contingency plans critical for the industry.

In a crash-out Brexit, customs checks and food safety and agri-food inspections, known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) controls, would have to be imposed on goods moving between the two countries.

The SPS inspections pose the greatest challenge in a so-called cliff-edge Brexit, given that they are the most complicated and extensive border inspections. Compulsory “third country” physical checks are required on a set percentage of food products being imported from the UK after it leaves the EU.

EU and Irish officials are exploring the possibility of carrying out “factory gate” customs checks and aligning plant and animal health standards with Northern Ireland to avoid inspections at the border.

John Horgan, managing director of the Co Meath-based meat processor Kepak Group, said that it would “probably not” be possible to carry out “farm-gate” health checks to avoid the requirement for checks at the border with Northern Ireland because of the volumes moving north-south.

“It would take a lot of engagement and recruitment of officers even to man that physically because there are so many farm-gates,” he said.

Most animals are processed and slaughtered in Ireland so the movement of meat would have to be checked, he said.

“Factory-gate” customs inspections would work for a company like Kepak sending a full container load to a UK customer, he said, but he expressed concern that the Revenue Commissioners approvals process was “very slow”.

For agricultural controls, a system of self-declaration backed by documentation held for possible future audits could work, he said.

Nine out of every 10 animals slaughtered by Kepak, one of the country’s largest meat processors, are exported and of these, four or five go to the UK, which took €5.2 billion of Irish agri-food exports in 2017.

Free flow

Jim Bergin, chief executive of dairy processor Glanbia Ireland, said that the company wanted a “free flow of product with necessary checks” to ensure the continued seamless transit of 130 million litres of milk that the company sources “truck by truck” from Northern Ireland every year.

He said he would like to see the Government seek some discretion on EU rules so there would not be a full suite of intrusive mandatory checks on the first day after any UK exit.

“If and when the UK exit, it is going to be ‘third country’ product, so the big issue for us is to ensure that that product is certified in both jurisdictions in a way that we can supply customers,” he said.

The two executives were speaking to The Irish Times as they jointly launched a new calf-to-beef programme to encourage cattle farming by ensuring the future purchase of beef at guaranteed prices.

Mr Bergin expressed concerns about comments by the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier that “elaborate” checks on goods and animals crossing the Irish Border would be required in a no-deal scenario.

These would disrupt “seamless” supply chains and trucks “working against the clock,” he said.

“We are talking about delay, documentation, having data collected and being accurate which we can do but delay means time and administration means money,” he said.

Mr Horgan pointed to the risk in a hard Brexit to the large number number of pigs being exported from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland and lambs coming across the Border from the North to the Republic.

“It is unbelievable that with only a matter of days to go that we still don’t know how our businesses are going to be managed,” he said, expressing frustration at the UK’s failure to agree a withdrawal deal with just nine days until Britain is due to leave the EU.