So-called ‘teething problems’ after leaving the European Union are showing themselves as fundamental flaws in the system, writes Claire Taylor

FOR A country that claims to be a global leader in innovation, it beggar’s belief that UK exporters are having to contend with conducting cross-border trade with the EU using a mostly paper-based certification system.

Consignments of goods entering the continent are facing delays of 24 hours at a time as hauliers await changes to paperwork to be sent via post the following day. It’s a nonsense that is seeing our export trade in fresh food dwindling by the day. Seafood, especially, is the BIG loser.

Little wonder that food exporters are imploring the UK government to abandon its archaic paper trail and switch to using the electronic system operated on the continent. This would allow amendments to paperwork to be made instantaneously and be a crucial step to getting produce moving as quickly as possible.

Six weeks on from our departure from the EU and so-called “teething problems” appear to have flagged up fundamental problems in the system which will extend well beyond the initial disruption anticipated. UK companies continue to face extra costs: delays in shipments to the continent; mountains of new paperwork and a lack of understanding over the rules – which in themselves appear to lack consistency.

Well-known Scottish exporters and food producers delivered a scalding assessment of the Brexit deal and its impact on their ability to trade with Europe to a Holyrood committee last week. Ian Watts of Food Standards Scotland gave an alarming account of lorries being held up on the continent by EU customs officers struggling with the new rules – resulting in some shipments being condemned to landfill.

He reported that one truck of fresh fish was delayed in Holland because not all species of fish had been translated into Dutch, despite their being no such requirement needed. Another load was held up because the colour of the health certificate ink was different from the health stamp ink – again not a requirement. It sounds very much like EU officials are making up their own rules and UK businesses are the ones who are paying the price. The seafood sector alone is reported to be losing about a million pounds a day.

Seafood producers J Charles LLP have not sold one kilo of fish to the EU in the last month – with no guarantees of their fish arriving within 24 hours, it is not worth the risk. Andrew Charles from J Charles LLP reported that pre-Brexit he would look to sell monkfish to one of his main customers in Germany for £12 per kilo, but with the added costs in the current system he would be looking at £19 per kilo. It is clear that Brexit and its “sea of opportunity” is making a mockery of fish exporters who are being hung out to dry.

What is more worrying is that trade volumes were low for the start of the year, so the current disruption could just be a small taste of what is to come.

Many firms had rushed to stockpile in December ahead of the end of the transition period and Covid-19 has also seen disruption to usual trade activities. With the food services sector largely defunct due to Covid-19, when this kickstarts again, these delays in the system are only going to be exacerbated by increased volumes and pressure.

Throw into the mix the fact that new Brexit rules on imports from the EU come in to force from April 1. There have already been warnings from Scotland’s food and drink industry of price rises and food shortages, as EU businesses will face similar challenges exporting to the UK.

One of the major disruptions to the current flow of exports has been that many hauliers won’t accept groupage –where goods from different companies for different customers are grouped together on one lorry.

Inadequate paperwork with one product could end up delaying an entire truck’s worth of goods, so many won’t take the risk. As a result, many small to medium businesses now have no route to market as they can’t afford to send their goods individually – relying on shared haulage costs.

Food Standards Scotland reported that as many as 50 per cent of certificates are having to be reworked. Mistakes are costly and are setting back companies between £100 and £800 per certificate in extreme cases.

Small exporters are being shafted by the new system and there is a dire need for a certification support fund from the UK and Scottish Government’s to ensure there is an export industry for these companies longer term.

Consignments of British meat heading to customers on the continent are reportedly below 50% of normal volume, with some companies doing no exports at all. The new system and its mountain of paperwork has added an average of 30 hours into the process;  and the costs to ship these loads are now around 60% higher than last year.

The Scottish Association of meat wholesalers found that members had incurred an extra million pounds worth of export health certificate costs under the new system. With all this increased documentation for the red meat sector, it will mean an increase in price to the end consumer which, in the EU market, will make us less competitive.

But could there be an upside to all of this excessive paperwork? If the UK Government are able to streamline this incredibly complicated trading process, then the added checks and health assurances could give Scottish exports additional value to the end consumer and in turn command a higher value.

However, Given that the “teething problems” are now emerging to be fundamental flaws in the system, any green shoots of this new trading arrangement are caught in the net of red tape strangling our export industry.