Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister has written to the EU urging it to think twice about risking daily food supplies to local supermarkets with mandatory Brexit health checks from 1 January.
J Sainsbury and Marks & Spencer have warned that certain lines of meat, fish and dairy products may be restricted because of the checks that will be imposed on food and animals entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain from 1 January.
The DUP leader and Michelle O’Neill, the deputy first minster, said they have “urgently asked the EU to consider the serious implications and impact on our essential food and produce supply chains”.
They argue it is “simply not credible” to impose health checks at ports on “goods [that] are sterling packaged by well established companies”, which pose “zero risk that they would use a backdoor” into Ireland and thereby the single market.
In a recent memo on the state of the Brexit talks, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has warned that he does not want a “food scandal there in a few years”, suggesting the EU has yet to agree to waive checks on supermarket suppliers.
The EU is concerned over the possibility of infections or outbreaks of diseases such as salmonella crossing the invisible border with the Republic of Ireland if it does not have rigorous checks at the ports and airports in Northern Ireland.
The exact nature of these checks is still being discussed at the EU-UK joint committee tasked with implementing Brexit and chaired by Michael Gove and Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European commission.
The confidential update on talks suggests Gove and Šefčovič have yet to agree on the frequency of the checks and the requirement that every product coming in from Great Britain has a health certificate.
Last week Sainsbury’s chief executive, Simon Roberts, said the trade needed something akin to a “trusted trader status” to help the free flow of goods. “Customers expect to have access to a full range but [it] won’t be possible to make that available unless something changes.”
In a statement Foster said: “It is simply not credible nor in good faith with what the EU committed to on NI to maintain a position that well established supermarket chains such as Iceland, M&S, Tesco or Sainsbury’s cannot be trusted to send goods to NI for circulation in NI.
“It is simply not reasonable for the EU to insist these goods are treated as ‘at risk’ putting food and produce supplies to NI on 1st Jan at risk.”
EU representatives said they had received the letter from Foster and O’Neill and were aware of the issues facing supermarkets.
The health check rules “are there to protect the health and safety of consumers in the single market, including consumers in Northern Ireland. We are aware, of course, of the concerns raised regarding supermarkets and the import of food products into Northern Ireland”.