Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury and Tesco have all been hit by new red tape and customs formalities introduced after the Brexit transition period ended on January 1.
The new rules are part of the Northern Ireland Protocol – the mechanism agreed by the UK and the EU in 2019 to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Under this protocol, Northern Ireland continues to apply EU internal market and customs rules to maintain frictionless trade above the land border with the republic. This means that vast volumes of new documents are needed to process Irish Sea checks on shipments from Britain to the region.
The additional paperwork has left many food suppliers facing long delays in shipping goods to the region, resulting in empty shelves for urgent items like fresh fruits and vegetables and chilled meat.
Glyn Roberts, head of Retail NI, an industry group in the region that represents 1,800 independent retailers and wholesalers, said a “huge Brexit bureaucracy” had caused considerable supply chain problems for retailers across Ireland from North.
“I think in the end it will collapse, but the next few months are going to be critical,” he said. “At the end of the day, this is not the wonderful land of milk and honey promised by the people who campaigned for Brexit, but we have to make the most of a bad situation.”
The problems led to criticism of Boris Johnson’s government from pro-Brexit Democratic Unionists, who opposed the protocol because they wanted Northern Ireland to leave the EU on exactly the same terms as the rest of UK.
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP and party spokesperson on Brexit, said “supermarket shelves are empty” in Northern Ireland.
In the House of Commons on Monday, he urged Chancellor Rishi Sunak to get the situation under control. But Mr Sunak said: “I know that goods as a whole continue to flow smoothly between Britain and Northern Ireland.” Ministers would work to resolve individual issues, the Chancellor added.
M&S has had to temporarily remove around 5% of its range from Northern Ireland shelves to minimize the risk of trucks being blocked due to missing documents. The retailer said it was looking for options to source more products locally.
Sainsbury has adopted the unusual practice of stocking locally sourced Spar brand food in its stores in Northern Ireland in an effort to maintain continuity of supply. The channel said “a small number” of products were temporarily unavailable in Northern Ireland “while border arrangements are confirmed”.
Henderson, owner of the Spar franchise in the region, said it was providing “a range of fresh and frozen products” as part of the deal. The wholesaler said he had built up stocks over the past three months to mitigate the impact of Brexit.
Tesco said: “We have a good supply of product in Northern Ireland. There has been a short lead time on some products, but we are working with suppliers to get them back on the shelves as quickly as possible and direct customers to alternatives where we can.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, which represents large supermarket chains, said “all retailers” were under more or less pressure as the new system took hold.
But he added: “To put that in perspective, there are a few hundred items that are not available at the moment, while a large supermarket has over 40,000.”