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The business, which owns plant-based yoghurt brands Cocos Organic and Nush, has halted exports into the EU

Fresh food exporters are facing “an absolute nightmare” when tranporting goods through Calais, as overzealous French border officials “cause hell at customs”, Met Foods has warned.

The business, which owns plant-based yoghurt brands Cocos Organic and Nush, has halted exports into the EU after up to £15,000-worth of Cocos Organic stock was spoiled last week. This was down to officials unloading its product off a chilled truck to test its organic status, Met Foods said.

There is no chilled ­storage facility at Calais, and testing can take between five to seven days, according to Met Foods director Bethany Eaton, meaning the product would be therefore have to be “immediately destroyed”.

Eaton, who was also co-founder of the now defunct UK arm of Australian brand Coyo, said she had “heard nothing” since the shipment was impounded on 27 October.

“No one has given us any update,” she said. Eaton pointed out the business would lose even more money than the price of the goods, as French authorities would also charge the company storage and testing fees for products that Met Foods could no longer sell.

“It’s not the fact they are doing random spot checks, because we could handle that and then send the product on. It’s the fact they are doing these spot checks on chilled lorries with chilled goods when they have no storage for chilled products,” Eaton added. 

French border officials were just “picking and choosing and doing what they fancied”, she said, with her logistics firm Solstar warning the business that similar disruption was “happening to chilled lorries at the French border on a weekly basis”.

Solstar had told Met Foods factory manager Tom Anderson that the issue had become more acute since the UK officially exited the EU in January 2020, with one person involved in exporting similar products to the EU describing French authorities as “difficult” and turning the export process into a “complete failure”.

Eaton told The Grocer one of her biggest frustrations was around the lack of clarity over what exporting businesses could do next and what the next stages of the process were.

“Are they going to charge us to destroy it? How much are we going to have to pay for storage and testing? Can we get this on our insurance?” she asked.

Met Foods has approached Defra for assistance over the issue and will pause all exports into the EU until it is resolved.

“I need reassurances this is not going to happen again, we can’t afford to keep writing off this stock,” Anderson said. However, he added he had also been warned French authorities had the power to do “whatever they feel is necessary” so guarantees of future safe passage for the supplier’s goods were not forthcoming.

The reason the port gave for unloading the lorry was to test whether the consignment met organic criteria. However, the products unloaded had approval from the Soil Association with matching paperwork. 

“We’re aware of some issues concerning the variability of interpretation of the rules,” said Lee Holdstock, Soil Association Certification senior supply chain development manager.

“Some clients have experienced problems, and we are working with them to ensure that systems and documentation are consistent – hopefully it will be resolved shortly,” he added. “We are all on a journey and inevitably face some teething problems post-Brexit.”

The disruption follows concerns from dairy exporters earlier this year that “differing interpretations” over the EU’s revised export health certification scheme was increasing red tape and delays to shipments to the bloc. 

A spokesman for French customs told The Grocer the issues had been caused by “an infrastructure problem concerning the port of Calais”, while the department did not intervene in issues such as the problems faced by Met Foods.

A Defra spokesman said it was “aware of this particular case and officials are in contact with the organisation to provide assistance”.