EU food fiasco: Captured in one delivery of M&S curry, HARRY WALLOP

EU food fiasco: Captured in one delivery of M&S curry, HARRY WALLOP

July 23, 2021

The EU food fiasco: 720 pages of red tape, Pettifogging rules and how the wrong colour ink can condemn a lorry of food… all captured in one delivery of M&S curry to Ireland, writes HARRY WALLOP

Archie Norman, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, this week issued a cri de coeur on behalf of British retailers who export products from the mainland to Ireland.

Because the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit agreement places the border between the UK and Ireland, in effect in the Irish Sea, businesses such as his face a nightmare of red tape when they make landfall in Northern Ireland.

‘It’s not the rules of the Customs Union that are the problem, it is the Byzantine and pointless and pettifogging enforcement,’ he argued. No less than 40 per cent of M&S’s consignments to Ireland face a delay of between six and 48 hours.

Here the Mail describes a disastrous delivery journey of a consignment of chicken tikka masala — M&S’s bestselling ready meal in Ireland — that took place earlier this year

And matters are soon to get worse. After September 30, goods destined for Northern Ireland — an internal movement of food within the UK — will suffer the same checks and bureaucracy as exports to the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU.

So how hard is it for M&S to move goods from Britain to its 17 stores in Eire?

Here the Mail describes a disastrous delivery journey of a consignment of chicken tikka masala — M&S’s bestselling ready meal in Ireland — that took place earlier this year.

It was designed to travel from a factory in Wales to one of M&S’s stores in Dublin. But the trip turned into a 660-mile odyssey and, while this is in many ways a worst-case scenario, it illustrates the potential problems that lie in wait for our food exporters to Ireland.

RF Brookes factory, Rogerstone, Wales

Monday, 13:00

One of Britain’s biggest ready-meal factories is situated on the edge of Newport. RF Brookes is owned by 2 Sisters, a company which started as a chicken processor — cutting and packaging breasts and legs — but now has factories across the UK making processed meals, including pizzas, spring rolls and curries for most leading supermarkets.

The chicken tikka masala, a ‘medium-spiced curry with pieces of chargrilled chicken in a creamy masala sauce’, comes off the production line at 1pm. It has a best-before date in eight days’ time.

The P&O European Highlander ferry arriving into Cairnryan, Stranraer on route from Larne in Northern Ireland

The M&S ordering system has marked it for the Republic of Ireland, specifically the Grafton Street store in Dublin, to be sold for €6.20.

Pre-Brexit, the curry had little paperwork. It left the factory with a Vehicle Summary Sheet — a six-page document detailing the load’s contents, the temperature of the refrigerated lorry and its departure time.

Since January 1, 2021, however, RF Brookes employees have had to enter voluminous details of the curry into an M&S database.

This is used to create forms and includes the Latin name of the animal that provided the meat, the code for the breed of chicken, and the date of the pasteurisation of the cream in the curry sauce.

There are 32 fields to fill in for each product and it can take three hours to upload the information.

16:00

The ready meal leaves the factory in Wales and heads up the M6 towards Scotland in a refrigerated 2 Sisters lorry, along with other products made in the same factory. Before the new rules were introduced it would have stopped at an M&S warehouse at Crewe to then take a ferry to Dublin at Holyhead.

Now, it heads 370 miles to Motherwell, Scotland, for processing.

M&S Motherwell Export Centre

Since January 1, 2021, however, RF Brookes employees have had to enter voluminous details of the curry into an M&S database

The lorry heads down the A77 to Cairnryan, a small port on Scotland’s west coast, six miles north of Stranraer. (Pictured, M&S Depot, Motherwell, Scotland)

Tuesday, 00:30

The lorry arrives at Motherwell Export Centre, a warehouse converted in November 2020 prior to the Brexit deal being signed. The 60,000 sq ft warehouse, operated by M&S’s logistics partner, Gist, is designed for all edible goods going to Ireland. POAO products — products of animal origin — are unloaded into ‘Vets’ Corner’.

Baked beans wouldn’t need to go into Vets’ Corner, but the chicken tikka masala, including poultry, yoghurt, cream and butter, does.

06:00

At 6am, Gist workers start sorting the paperwork for products in Vets’ Corner going to the Republic. This includes export documents and vehicle-loading lists — each detailing every item’s product code.

The Export Centre also employs five veterinarians, who check any product of animal origin — even though it has been days since the poultry, yoghurt, cream and butter in the curry has been in contact with a living animal. They then fill in a European Health Certificate, a long and complex form.

If a product has elements that come from two different countries — say a pizza topped with Italian mozzarella and British pork — it will require two long forms.

Some of it is standard health and safety: ensuring any meat does not pose a BSE risk to consumers. Some is bureaucratic box-filling, including listing the chicken under the code PFG, ‘domestic poultry and farmed feathered game’.

This process of form filling — for a lorry-load of food destined for Dublin — takes six hours and can entail 720 pages, especially if the lorry includes fish products.

These need, in addition to the European Health Certificate, supplier catch certificates, detailing where the fish was caught, the vessel involved, its skipper’s name and the boat’s insurance details.

Mr Norman, says: ‘It is all on paper, which is absurd in this age.’

14:00

The forms have been completed. There are so many sheets of paper that a box file is needed.

A Gist worker then uploads the information in the forms into two separate computer systems — HMRC and its EU equivalent — to ensure the products can be exported to the EU and to check whether any of the products carry a tariff. Luckily, a chicken curry can enter the EU tariff-free.

14:30

Some 24 packs of curry leave the export centre in a refrigerated 44-ton articulated lorry with a double-decker trailer. Also in the lorry are lots of other foods ordered by the Dublin store at the start of the week. Most weeks, this includes chocolate Swiss rolls, pepperoni pizzas and packaged chicken, tomato and basil pasta salads.

The lorry heads down the A77 to Cairnryan, a small port on Scotland’s west coast, six miles north of Stranraer.

The lorry arrives in Cairnryan and is able to get on the next available P&O passenger ferry crossing to Larne in Northern Island.

Though the chicken tikka masala is heading to Dublin, it first must stop off in Northern Ireland because, as part of the Brexit agreement with the EU, instead of putting a border between the Republic of Ireland (in the EU) and Northern Ireland (in the UK), the border is in effect in the Irish Sea. So all the checks for any products heading to the EU have to be done in Northern Ireland.

Larne Port

Tuesday, 19:00

The lorry arrives in Cairnryan and is able to get on the next available P&O passenger ferry crossing to Larne in Northern Island

Finally, the inspector starts on the M&S lorry’s paperwork. At first, all looks good, despite the time it takes to inspect every form for all the foods on board

The 40-mile crossing from Cairnryan takes two hours. Larne is 22 miles north of Belfast and is a major stopping-off point for imports into Northern Ireland and, now, also the Republic.

At the harbourside in Larne, officials from the Northern Irish Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs — as part of an agreement with the EU — are in charge of ensuring all products heading south towards the Republic are EU-compliant and have the correct paperwork.

Sometimes, it’s merely a case of flicking through the forms, sometimes lorries have to be opened up and their cargo unloaded for a detailed inspection.

On a typical day, about one in five lorries is given a physical check. Today, the lorry with the ready meals is pulled aside.

21:00

The curries have been waiting for two hours to be checked, while lorries in front are inspected.

Finally, the inspector starts on the M&S lorry’s paperwork. At first, all looks good, despite the time it takes to inspect every form for all the foods on board.

But then the inspector notices, on the final page of the European Health Certificate for the chicken tikka masala, that the vet who signed off the forms in Motherwell has used a black biro, and the form is printed out in black.

The inspector says he can’t let the curries through. The driver remonstrates, but the inspector points out the small print at the bottom of the certificate: ‘The colour of the signature shall be different to that of the printing’.

As a result, the curry cannot enter the Republic of Ireland.

Mr Norman said this week: ‘Our error rate in this huge amount of documentation has been running at less than 0.001 per cent, but 40 per cent of our [lorries] have been delayed and a delay could be six hours but often is 24 to 48 hours.’

M&S say that though ‘wrong ink’ incidents are very unusual (everyone has been vigilant on pen colours since), it is still being plagued by lengthy checks in Larne, with inspectors sometimes querying if vegan products really are devoid of any animal products, for instance.

As the 24 packs are stuck in a lorry full of other products, and there is no spare, empty M&S lorry at Larne to take the rest of the (cleared) products to Dublin, the entire lorry needs to turn around.

The driver gets in touch with Motherwell. He’s told to get some sleep and return in the morning.

Wednesday, 09:00

The driver takes the 9am ferry to Cairnryan with his lorry-load of food that was destined for Dublin.

Cairnryan Port

The inspector says he can’t let the curries through. The driver remonstrates, but the inspector points out the small print at the bottom of the certificate: ‘The colour of the signature shall be different to that of the printing’

Wednesday, 11:00

The driver is back in Britain and heads up the A77 to Motherwell.

Motherwell export centre

Wednesday, 14:00

Here, Gist and M&S workers start to unload the stock and try to work out which products have a long enough shelf life to be sent back to Dublin via Larne, and which need to be sold quickly .

This ‘unpicking’ takes time, and the products have to be entered into the M&S UK stock-management system — the central database that shows head office which stores are running low on Holly Willoughby-modelled floral tops and which stores need flapjacks.

This process takes the rest of the day to complete.

Thursday, 08:00

The chicken tikka masala has four days left on its best-before date. It needs to get onto a shelf quickly. That means finding a Scottish store that is low on Indian ready meals and is willing to take 24 extra CTMs, as the industry call them.

By the time the stock had been unloaded and entered into the UK stock management system yesterday, all the M&S stores were shut. On Thursday morning, the Motherwell export centre begins its quest to find any nearby stores willing to take an unexpected load of curries. Most managers say no.

Eventually, the M&S store in the Braehead shopping centre outside Glasgow says it will take them.

M&S store, Braehead

Thursday, 17:00

The chicken tikka masala has four days left on its best-before date. It needs to get onto a shelf quickly. That means finding a Scottish store that is low on Indian ready meals and is willing to take 24 extra CTMs, as the industry call them

The chicken tikka masalas are unloaded from the lorry and moved into the refrigerated storage at the back of the shop, before being placed on the shelf, priced £4.

Monday, 14:00

The curries have not sold well over the weekend; there are at least a dozen unsold. The manager, Kirsty Warwick, says: ‘Our customers are savvy and often reach to the back to pick up a product with a longer shelf life.’

There are only a few hours left before they pass their best-before date. At this point, Kirsty applies discount stickers to them.

21:00

Closing time. There are still unsold chicken tikka masalas. A charity arrives most evenings at closing time to pick up any food that is on — but not over — its best-before date. They freeze any food that can be preserved, before donating it to Glasgow branches of Stepping Stones For Families or Teen Challenge, two charities that cook meals for those in need.

At least someone will benefit from this bureaucratic episode.

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