A small error in the paperwork – a box ticked by mistake – and the tanker of butter oil was held at French customs for five days, with veterinary authorities at the border threatening to destroy it. The debacle nearly cost the tanker’s exporter, dairy company County Milk, a six-figure sum. After fraught negotiations, the cargo was eventually repatriated.
“You don’t need too many of those to be destroyed and you are in dire straits,” says Phil Langslow, trading director at County Milk, the UK’s largest privately owned dairy ingredients business.
While trade from Britain to the EU has begun to recover from the Brexit disruption earlier this year, some sectors are still in trouble, none more so than the dairy industry.
Exports plummeted in February for a second month, HMRC figures showed last week, with milk and cream experiencing the largest post-Brexit loss out of the top 10 foodstuffs sold to the continent.
Analysis of the figures by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) showed milk and cream exports to the EU fell by 97%, compared with a year earlier, with just £900,000 worth of product exported, compared with more than £24m in February 2020.
Cheese exports for February tumbled from £41m to £14.5m, a slide of 65%, although this was an improvement on the figures recorded in January, when the category collapsed by 85%.
Dairy firms say they face a “killer combination” of increased costs, complexity and paperwork required to export products such as butter, cream and cheese to the EU since Brexit, with some in the industry fearing the current slowdown risks becoming permanent.
Like meat and other products of animal origin, dairy requires some of the most stringent checks, certificates and documentation.
A vet has to inspect the produce and stamp paperwork before it can depart for the continent, while traders have to input details into several databases. If there are any errors in the documents, or a load is rejected by EU customs authorities, delivery can be significantly delayed and, in the worst case, re-exported back to Britain, or even destroyed.
One of the top 10 players in the UK, in a sector dominated