Producers have condemned the “confusion and chaos” surrounding compulsory health and identification marks after official advice was changed just weeks before departure day.
It means food products of animal origin (POAO) are likely to be rejected by the EU if they are stamped ‘UK’, rather than ‘GB’ or ‘United Kingdom’.
The bar will be imposed if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal, on either 12 April or 22 May – the new danger dates imposed by the EU – but could also be a requirement even if Theresa May’s deal, with a 21-month transition period, is eventually passed.
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, said: “This is going to cause confusion and chaos both for producers and shoppers.
“At very late notice, we must make a change that will cost businesses a huge amount of money and that we may not be able to sort out in the time available.”
Mr Wright also warned that, even if packaging can be changed, much of it was simply too small to carry the description “United Kingdom”.
“Furthermore, GB is not a recognised description of a country of origin and may have ramifications for producers in Northern Ireland,” he added.
The fears were echoed by the British Poultry Council, which warned of “multiple consequences” from not having the UK mark, or a single mark.
“We don’t know where products are going to be exported – and if there are consolidated products from several slaughter houses, with different marks, there could be problems at border inspections,” said Shraddha Kaul, its public affairs manager.
The problem has blown up because, after the UK leaves the EU, products cannot carry the ‘EC’ mark as proof of production in an approved establishment and fit for human consumption.
Last year, producers were told to prepare with packaging stamped ‘UK’ – but the European Commission then ruled that would not be acceptable.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) only changed its advice in mid-February, in instructions sent to thousands of firms making meat, egg and milk products.
It reads: “For businesses who export POAO to the EU, the health and ID marks must carry either: the official two-digit ISO Code GB or the full country name in capital letters UNITED KINGDOM.”
If there a crash-out Brexit, “the revised marks would apply to all POAO exported to the EU immediately from the date of the UK’s exit from the EU (29 March 2019)”. That date has now been revised.
The FSA also said it could only “aim to agree a transition period”, adding: “The point at which the new marks will come into effect will depend on the nature of the UK’s exit from the EU.”
Mr Wright added: “If producers trading with the EU don’t have the appropriate health mark, those products may have to come back to the UK and be sold at a loss, or they may end up as food waste.
“The advice came less than 6 weeks before it was potentially coming into effect – but the turnaround time for packaging is three months.”
To add to the potential confusion, exports to non-EU countries must be stamped ‘UK’, unless the receiving country has agreed to the new descriptions.
Within the UK, however, an emergency regulation rushed through would allow continued use of the ‘EC’ identification mark until the end of transition, in December 2020.
An FSA spokesperson said: “Following discussions with the European Commission it was indicated that UK proposals would not meet EU third-country legal requirements.
“The FSA has provided industry with clear guidance as to what forms of the health and identification marks are applicable to the UK, EU and non-EU markets.”