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Workable solutions sought as stalled shipments follow Brexit   

Extensive planning and stockpiling ahead of January 1 have failed to prevent widespread shortages among Northern Ireland’s grocery retailers in the first few weeks after Brexit.

New opportunities have emerged for local producers, and retailers already committed to a local supply chain have benefitted from less impact following the end of the Brexit transition period. However, new customs regulations applied to trade from Great Britain to Northern Ireland have resulted in stalled shipments and stripped supermarket shelves in the first few weeks of January.

“There has been some disruption to supply while some GB suppliers get used to a new way of trading with Northern Ireland and this was exacerbated by the days that fresh food was not able to pass from the EU to GB,” said Aodhán Connolly, director, Northern Ireland Retail Consortium. “But retailers are adept at quickly changing supply chains and, while there may be slightly less choice, there is plenty of stock.

“However, in the long term, we will need the UK government and the EU to work with us to find long-term workable simplifications that keep choice and affordability for NI families while keeping NI business competitive.”

Describing the chaos as “entirely predictable”, Michele Shirlow, chief executive, Food NI, said: “Gaps in food supply have already been appearing on the shelves, and a number of producers and distributors and supply operations have either suspended or withdrawn from trade relationships with Northern Ireland shops.

“We’ve heard of fresh fruit and vegetables, mostly from the continent through Dover, being delayed. Stilton, for example, is now in short supply due to a breakdown in supply to our delis in particular.

“Many producers, it seems, were not entirely ready for the new processes and were caught out by the speed with which these were introduced.”

“Food is still getting through,” she said, “but much slower than previously was the case due to confusion over the new customs rules from the cumbersome Northern Ireland Protocol.”

While many Sainsbury’s customers were surprised to find SPAR-branded produce on shelves over the last few weeks, Shirlow said the multiple retailer’s contingency agreement with Henderson Wholesale represented a good example of supermarkets thinking ahead.

“There’s really no reason to import foods such as sausages, bacon and ready meals from Britain when they are so easily sourced from local suppliers,” she said.

Henderson Group Sales & Marketing Director Patrick Doody said the Mallusk-based business has been building stocks for three months with the aim of mitigating the impact of Brexit.

“However, our suppliers and hauliers are beginning to experience delays as we all try to navigate onerous levels of bureaucracy and red tape,” he said. “We will continue to contingency plan and have productive conversations with government bodies and logistic groups on any supply issues. It is about managing delays rather than shortages at this point.”

A spokesperson for Musgrave NI said the business had been planning extensively to minimise the impact of any disruption; working with its suppliers to install the new customs processes and procedures, increasing product held in NI and developing new delivery routes to avoid the UK land bridge for European-sourced goods.

“Our supply chain is strong with our pre-Brexit stock-build and contingency plan helping to ensure our stores are receiving orders,” said the spokesperson. “We are working closely with our suppliers, many of which are NI based, to ensure continuity of supply and at present, are trading as normal.”

While around 5% of the 6,500 lines stocked by M&S stores in Northern Ireland have disappeared since January 1, the retailer expects most lines will eventually be restored.

“We have served customers in Northern Ireland for over 50 years and our priority is to make sure we continue to deliver the same choice and great quality range that our loyal customers have always enjoyed,” said a spokesperson. “Stores have been receiving regular deliveries; however, following the UK’s recent departure from the EU, we are transitioning to new processes and we’re working closely with our partners and suppliers to ensure customers can continue to enjoy a great range of products.”

A spokesperson for Lidl said all its stock is moving to schedule at present. “Over the past two years, we have implemented a Brexit preparation process for our supplier network to enable them to prepare for all Brexit outcomes,” said the spokesperson.

“We also work with more than 50 local Northern Irish suppliers who supply our everyday range, and we source more than £290m worth of produce in the regional annually.

“Our advanced local sourcing network, in addition to our detailed preparation, has meant that we do not have any significant supply issues in relation to Brexit at present.”

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