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Empty shelves in M&S not sign of post-Brexit food supply problems, industry body says

Photos of empty shelves in M&S stores have caused a stir in recent days.

Empty shelves at the M&S store in Blackrock, Dublin, on 5 January.
Empty shelves at the M&S store in Blackrock, Dublin, on 5 January.
Image: Barbara Scully

THE MAJORITY OF retailers are not experiencing major difficulties with their supply lines in the aftermath of Brexit and empty shelves in Marks & Spencer stores are not indicative of a wider issue, Ireland’s largest retail representative body has said.

Photos of empty shelves at M&S stores in Dublin caused a stir on social media in recent days, with many wondering if it was a harbinger of things to come now that the UK has officially left the European Union.

A spokesperson for the British chain told TheJournal.ie that the issue arose because it is “transitioing to new processes” following Brexit.

“Following the UK’s recent departure from the EU, we are transitioning to new processes and it is taking a little longer for some of our products to reach our stores,” he said.

The spokesperson added that the problem is expected to be resolved “soon”.

Products with a short shelf life – such as vegetables and refrigerated foods – are most likely to be affected by supply problems.

Retail Excellence’s Managing director Duncan Graham said M&S is particularly susceptible to facing issues because it sources the vast majority of its products in England and Wales and transports them to Ireland daily.

“It’s in these short shelf life products from retailers that are coming over on a daily basis and M&S is probably the most acute example of that because they source so much from the UK,” he said.

The industry spokesman predicted that we are unlikely to see similar problems at other major supermarkets as they have a more robust Irish supply base and appear to be coping well with the new arrangements.

I think at the moment it seems it’s primarily M&S. If other chains are having the same sort of issues it will become obvious over the next three to five days.

“I believe on this side of the border the vast majority of retailers are reasonably well prepared,” Graham added.

I do think, certainly from what I was hearing pre-Christmas, the UK side is not as well prepared as Ireland has been. That’s why you’re seeing one or two of these issues now.

While there has yet to be significant issues in Ireland, the UK parliament heard today that Northern Ireland is facing disruptions to its food supply because British suppliers are unaware of the new paperwork required to send food there.

Seamus Leheny of Logistics UK said there has been a lot of upheaval for freight operators, which he said was inevitable after the last-minute Brexit deal.

He said January is one of the quietest months of the year but volumes remain significant, with around 1,000 lorries a day entering Northern Ireland from Britain.

“I saw the first lorries arrive (in Belfast Port) under the terms of the protocol, on that first ship there were only 15 lorries, six of them were pulled immediately to go to the border control post because they didn’t have the correct documentation,” he told MPs.

“One large manufacturer in GB had 15 lorry loads of food to go to Northern Ireland this week, not a single one of them could move because when the lorries arrived there was no customs declaration and the operator quite rightly said, ‘there is no point in me lifting these because I’ll simply be detained or refused entry to board the ferry at Cairnryan or Liverpool.”

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Leheny said while most companies in Northern Ireland understand their obligations but there has been a breakdown in communication to suppliers and operators in Britain.

He described an operator on the opening weekend of the year who resorted to a video on You Tube for the paperwork to get lorries moving.

Giving evidence, Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, said events so far have been characterised by traders as “opening skirmishes”.

“Retailers have been stocking up before Christmas for this first week, the flow in the first weekend was less than 20% of the usual transport flow, there are real hardships that are going to come in the middle of this month,” he told MPs.

The big message from us is that we need the EU and UK to sit down together to talk about how the systems can be simplified and how we can get a long term workable solution because, quite frankly, this is not it.

Victor Chestnutt, president of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, said no difference has been seen yet at the farm gate but cautioned that it was “early days”.

With reporting by PA

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Ceimin Burke

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