French border closure highlights strains in supply chain

The two-day closure of the French border and cessation of freight traffic between Kent and Northern France has provided an insight into how fragile the UK’s just-in-time food system is, and how much Brexit could impact the flow of fresh produce both to and from the continent.

The situation arose after weeks of disruption at UK ports where Covid-19, Brexit stockpiling and Christmas created a perfect storm, resulting in a lack of capacity and resulting in many containers being turned away from UK ports, while lorries were already subjected to long delays at Dover and Folkstone.

Retailers and food and drinks companies have called for MPs to launch an urgent inquiry into disruption, while on Tuesday Sainsbury’s warned that if the situation persisted it could run out of imported produce such as lettuce and cauliflower. Sainsbury’s added that it was “sourcing everything we can from the UK and looking into alternative transport for product sourced from Europe”.

Food and Drink Federation (FDF) chief executive Ian Wright warned, “The suspension of accompanied freight traffic from the UK to France has the potential to cause serious disruption to UK Christmas fresh food supplies – and exports of food and drink.”

Vernon Mascarenhas of catering supplier Nature’s Choice said he expected to encounter shortages of short shelf-life products such as leafy salad vegetables and soft fruit as early as Wednesday. “Baby spinach, rocket, mixed salad, cos, gem, iceberg, raspberries and strawberries will be the first produce lines affected,” he said, adding that cucumbers, peppers and courgettes, which have more shelf life, could be next.

On Wednesday, the NFU welcomed the easing of the French border restrictions and said it was working closely with food and supply chain businesses to monitor potential disruption and impact on farm and consumers. NFU head of food and farming Philip Hambling said, “The priority is clearly driver welfare and ensuring they get a test as soon as possible, therefore ramping up testing capacity in Kent is essential to clear the backlog. The new protocol requirements are likely to be in place for the coming weeks and it is both a critical time for the end of our EU transition period – and for the supply chain to restock after Christmas.”

Photo source: geography

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