Britain faces fresh food shortages for months if a chaotic no-deal Brexit leaves perishable produce rotting in lorries at ports, industry experts have warned.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have called on the government to pause competition laws to allow firms to co-ordinate and direct supplies with each other in the event of no deal.
Doing so is illegal, as the law stands, and companies engaging in such practices risk being fined by the Competition and Markets Authority.
The FDF said: “We asked for these reassurances at the end of last year, but we’re still waiting.”
Retailers such as Tesco have warned that leaving the European Union on October 31 without a trade deal would be hugely problematic for the industry as much of the fresh produce is imported and warehouses are stocked full ahead of Christmas.
Ahead of the original Brexit deadline of March 29, supermarkets and retailers worked with suppliers to increase stocks of dried goods including pasta, bottled water and toilet roll.
But they have warned fresh fruit and vegetables, which have a short shelf-life of only a few days, cannot be stored and that customs checks at Britain’s biggest port of Dover could lead to delays for arrivals.
One retailer told the BBC October 31 “is about the worst day you can pick”, as warehouse capacity is at 105% in November, versus 75%-80% in March.
The UK would reportedly need 30 huge empty warehouses to store even a week’s extra food supply.
“In the event of no-deal disruption, if the Government wants the food supply chain to work together to tackle likely shortages – to decide where to prioritise shipments – they will have to provide cast-iron written reassurances that competition law will not be strictly applied to those discussions,” FDF’s chief operating officer Tim Rycroft told the BBC.
The industry has also tested different ports to avoid the main route of Dover-Calais while pharmaceutical companies have reserved space on airlines to fly in supplies if needed.
“The food sector is absolutely clear that a no-deal exit is a disastrous outcome for us,” the Food and Drink Federation’s Chief Operating Officer Tim Rycroft told BBC Radio.
“There will be selective shortages and they will to some extent be random because it depends on which trucks get through and which don’t. We think there will be some serious disruption and it will go on for weeks or months after our exit.”