Now is the time for food and drink sector to plan for future relationship with EU - David Thomson

On January 31 the transition period between the United Kingdom and the European Union will come to an end. Time is ticking away for food and drink businesses to get ready for what that actually means for their trading relationship with the EU.

David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland
David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland

For the majority of this year food and drink manufacturers in Scotland and across the UK have been fully focused on the impact of Covid-19. Their priorities have been to keep their employees safe, ensure there is enough food on the supermarket shelves, and to look for other opportunities to sell their products – in particular for those that supply the hospitality industry.

These businesses adapted quickly and found new innovative ways of working. Their employees were at the heart of this and are truly hidden heroes. Their hard work ensured the nation was fed and that support was available for the people in their local communities that needed it most. This has meant that many businesses, particularly smaller food and drink companies, have simply not had the head space to plan for their future relationship with the EU.

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Throughout the crisis food and drink businesses showed great resilience, quickly putting in place crisis and risk management plans. This has made many businesses stronger and allowed them to develop new skills. Now is the time for our food and drink businesses to put all of this experience and energy into planning for their future relationship with their customers and suppliers in the EU.

To help members our EU Exit Committee has been meeting fortnightly to talk about the key issues and risk and of course the opportunities. There are some important lessons we have learnt through this work.

We started by waiting for all the answers we needed from governments across the UK. But we learnt that government officials will probably never have the answers to all of our questions. Now is the time to accept that and the uncertainties and risks ahead. Managing risks is what businesses do, after all.

We quickly realised we need to keep it simple and manageable. We wasted months worrying about the scale of the challenge. But at FDF we’ve condensed our preparations down to four key areas: moving product across borders, regulatory changes such as labelling and plant and animal health, making sure the EU colleagues in our UK businesses feel welcome, and preparing for the specific situation in Northern Ireland. Our policy leads at FDF have become experts in these areas. Our members need to make use of this fantastic resource – they are here to help you.

Finally, we urge businesses to keep asking questions. More and more information on what we need to do to prepare is being provided by government officials. But this has not always given us the information we need. And this information could continue to change even after the end of the transition period. What businesses really need to have is a simple list of the new requirements and a detailed process to follow for each. For example, what are the new labelling changes and what do we need to do?

Please remember we are all in this together and to make the best use of the support that is out there – including from the FDF, and the Scottish and UK Governments. I suggest you have a look at both the Eu Exit Food Hub and Prepare for Brexit websites as a starter! Find them at euexitfoodhub.co.uk and prepareforbrexit.scot

David Thomson, CEO, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) Scotland

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