At the end of this week, a major new regulation will come into force at the French border. It’s one that is set to cause “absolute chaos” for UK food exporters, industry sources have told The Grocer.

In a nutshell, French border control authorities at crucial points like Calais will begin requesting a French version of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) documents for certain food products from 13 January. If UK businesses fail to produce said translations, they risk having their consignments rejected at the border, causing even more disruption and massive delays.

The documents in question are ‘private attestations’ for composite shelf-stable products – tinned and packaged goods like canned custard, for example – that need to be transported at a controlled temperature of 0°C or above. Prior to the changes – which a customs source said were introduced “overnight”, raising the alarm among exporters just before Christmas – companies only had to carry those documents in either English or the language of the receiving country.

The French authorities have argued border control officers need documents in their native language to carry out their jobs properly. While that may sound reasonable, it also means businesses will now have to carry up to three different versions of the same document, leading to yet more pressure on resources, costs and working hours. Alas, UK exporters are now bracing for further border hassle.

As Cold Chain Federation CEO Shane Brennan puts it, changes like this are “commonplace” when dealing with a third country border. It’s within the gift of the enforcing authority – in this case, the French authorities – to interpret rules as they see fit, and implement them swiftly. 

This additional burden is highly disruptive for UK exporters, who are already weary of continuing to do business with EU countries, Brennan says.

“What it does is contribute to the permanent sense of uncertainty and unease around trade,” he says. This is why “lots of businesses have chosen to stop playing the game, and to stop trading outside of their borders, because they can’t have certainty over that trade,” he adds. “It’s an unfortunate post-Brexit consequence.”

This uncertainty only mounts with every single trade discussion between the UK and EU. The main takeaway from today’s high-profile meeting between foreign secretary James Cleverly, European Commission VP Maroš Šefčovič and Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris was that “a range of critical issues need to be resolved to find a way forward”. It’s yet another example of how never-ending UK and EU talks do very little to reassure the food industry – in fact, they tend to raise even more doubts around what trade will look like in the future.

“We are more than two years past the implementation of the ‘frictionless trade deal’ that the UK government heralded, and yet friction and uncertainty remain the day-to-day reality of UK food exporters,” Brennan points out. 

It’s a frustration that will be echoed by many. Because from where the food industry is standing, we seem no closer to reaching a viable trade solution than we were two years ago.