Last week’s long-awaited Brexit deal spared UK seafood exporters from potentially crippling tariffs on shipments to the EU, but on the banks of Scotland’s scenic Loch Fyne, Jamie McMillan is hardly celebrating.
From Friday, new paperwork required because of Brexit threatens to throw a wrench into the finely tuned export logistics system that Mr McMillan, managing director of Lochfyne Langoustines, relies on to get his live langoustines and brown crabs to high-paying customers across Europe.
The need for export health certificates costing up to £95 for every consignment and the potential for border delays threatens the survival of the family business that employs 22 people around the Argyll village of Tarbert, Mr McMillan said.
“There’s been a deal, but it doesn’t matter . . . We are still going to be faced with health certificate costs, increased paperwork costs and possible delays at the border,” he said.
“I don’t know if I will be in business by the 14 January . . . we are on the brink.”
The Brexit agreement struck by the UK and Brussels on Christmas Eve came after the two sides eventually agreed a compromise on EU access to UK fishing waters, averting the threat of Britain leaving the bloc’s single market and customs union on January 1 without a deal.
But despite the agreement on fishing quotas — now facing criticism from the UK fishing industry — concerns remain widespread among UK exporters, particularly those in the food business. Export health certificates or EHCs will be required for all animal products sold to the EU after the UK’s Brexit transition ends on Thursday night.
And while UK manufacturers with just-in-time supply chains also worry about the potential for border friction, they at least do not need to fret about car parts dying or spoiling in transit.
Mr McMillan said he needed to get his live seafood to the huge fish trading centre of Boulogne-sur-Mer in northern France in 24 hours. After 30 hours in boxes, some of it might not survive.
James Withers, chief executive of industry body Scotland Food and Drink, said there was deep concern across the sector about the need for EHCs, which confirm a product meets the import requirements of the destination country and must be signed by an authorised vet or certifying officer.
“It’s a recipe for delays and disruption to products that can be ruined by delays and disruptions,” Mr Withers said.
Last month, Scotland Food and Drink and 10 other industry groups including the farmers’ union and meat wholesalers association pleaded with UK prime minister Boris Johnson to negotiate a six month “grace period” with the EU for health certificates and other export documents.
“There is no system available that can cope with the increased demand in EHCs likely to be required from 1 January,” the groups said.
The UK government in June announced it would itself postpone health checks on imports from the EU for six months after the transition. But it has refused to discuss requesting a similar grace period from Brussels.
The UK government’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs declined to comment on the call for a grace period but added: “We are working hard to increase the number of official certifiers to meet demand after 31 December.”
But some local councils, which are responsible for providing EHCs and are seeing their already stretched budgets further strained by the coronavirus pandemic, have struggled to recruit qualified staff to meet the expected surge in demand.
“The national shortage of environmental health officers has meant that Shetland Islands Council has had to take on this extra work using existing resources, on top of other Covid-19-related work,” said David Robertson, environmental health team leader on the northern Scottish archipelago.
To try to ease the strain on councils and smooth the process, government agency Food Standards Scotland has helped set up three EHC “hubs” at logistics centres near Glasgow, where staff are already rehearsing a “one-stop” health certifying service for seafood exporters.
Laurence O’Toole, managing director at Irish food logistics company O’Toole Transport, which runs one of the EHC hubs, said the certificates would be prepared while lorries were still en route from the coast.
But checks by the certifying officers were still expected to delay the forward shipment of the loads by about an hour — no small matter given the tight deadlines needed to get the seafood to France for 6am the next morning. “At that stage the processors in France are screaming for their fish,” Mr O’Toole said.
And seafood shipments could face more substantial delays at the English Channel. The UK government has set up a system to give priority to time-sensitive loads such as seafood, but Mr O’Toole said there still appeared to be “administrative potholes” in the arrangements. And at least some lorries would face potentially time-consuming new checks by French authorities.
The effect could be to effectively add a day to the time it takes Scottish seafood to arrive, Mr O’Toole said.
Back in Argyll, Mr McMillan said the new procedures were likely to increase the costs of exports to the EU by about 20 per cent.
Border delays could be even more damaging. Lochfyne Langoustines was able to save one shipment of live seafood that got caught up in the French border closure last week, but still lost out on high pre-Christmas prices.
Mr Withers said the border closure had demonstrated how quickly export logistics could snarl up.
“It’s a cautionary tale for what potentially could happen at that start of January,” he said.
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