British makers of sausages, pies and minced beef are facing a potentially crippling hit to their trade with Europe because of EU rules requiring prepared meat products to be imported in frozen form, the industry has warned.
The meat industry fears that unless UK negotiators can secure an exemption to the rules, EU customers will look elsewhere for premium chilled products.
The requirement for all “meat preparations” imported from outside the European Economic Area to arrive frozen will also complicate trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where EU customs rules will apply after January 1.
“It’s a real problem, in the sense that historically the British meat industry is fully integrated with EU member states, particularly the Republic of Ireland, and has been for 40 years,” said Peter Hardwick, trade policy adviser for the British Meat Processors Association.
The industry is hopeful that British negotiators will be able to obtain a UK-specific derogation from the rules, which form part of the Export Health Certificate requirements that all animal and plant product exports to the EU must satisfy after January 1.
However, the agriculture ministry, Defra, said that while it was raising the issue with EU negotiators, for certain products, no appropriate certificate currently exists in EU law.
Asked by the Financial Times whether the department was confident an exemption would be granted, Defra declined to offer reassurances.
“Intensive planning is under way to help ensure that businesses and citizens are ready to take advantage of the opportunities and changes that [leaving the EU] will bring. This includes working closely with food producers to ensure they are ready to comply with future importing rules,” it added.
George Eustice, agriculture minister, told MPs last month that up to 300,000 health certificates would be required each year from January 1 — a fivefold increase on current levels.
A specimen certificate posted on the Defra website for beef products this month still noted that minced beef needed to be frozen to a maximum of -18C.
Freezing meat is expensive, reduces the quality of the product and requires the recipients on the EU side to have facilities to defrost meat. As a result many would simply not take frozen products, the BMPA said.
Gavin Morris, the group veterinary manager for Dunbia, the meat processing company supplied by 30,000 British and Irish farmers, said the requirement to send frozen meat would put a “huge question mark” over many existing contracts.
“The view we’ve gathered is that a lot of existing commercial contracts for products and preparations to go to the EU fresh will just stop — the clients will say ‘we don’t want it frozen, thanks very much, we’ll source from somewhere else’,” he said.
The scale of the impact to the trade is hard to quantify, the BMPA said, given that existing trade is not covered in the import-export statistics. One BMPA member said that it expected business worth £11.5m to become non-viable after January 1 if the rules remained unchanged.
There is also insufficient capacity in the UK to freeze the volume of meat products currently being exported to the EU, according to Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation.
“The UK has got a long-term, almost generational problem with not having enough freezer capacity and Brexit has been an exacerbation of that problem,” he added.
Without an exemption, the requirement to send meat products frozen would also hit Northern Ireland, according to Aodhán Connolly, director of Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, which said it had been asking for clarification from the government since the start of the year.
“These are staples for Northern Irish households — sausages, mince, even marinated pork chops for the barbecue,” he said. “This is another illustration that implementing Brexit is not a linear problem but a multi-dimensional jigsaw.”