M&S warns against separate post-Brexit labelling for goods sold in Northern Ireland | Marks & Spencer

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Marks & Spencer has urged the UK government not to consider separate labeling for goods sold in Northern Ireland during talks with the EU about improving trade arrangements post-Brexit, arguing it would be too costly for retailers and customers.

The retailer’s chairman, Archie Norman, has written to the Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, arguing that the requirement would not be a useful change to the Northern Ireland protocol and would create “presumptuous and prohibitive costs” for exporters.

The intervention comes as talks continue between the UK and the EU over possible changes to the controversial post-Brexit protocol to make it work better, after union anger over trade controls between Britain and Northern Ireland led to violence and the suspension of the Stormont meeting.

Both sides have previously suggested that additional labeling could help reduce the need for commodity controls and import controls.

M&S, which has been operating in Northern Ireland for over 50 years, warns that additional labeling would be costly, reducing availability and choice for consumers in Northern Ireland and leading to higher prices at a time of high food inflation.

Norman says in the letter: “There are two variants of the labeling proposals, either Northern Ireland specific labels or UK-wide. Both have the same problem for retailers or manufacturers operating in both Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

The food and household goods retailer said it sends between 7% and 9% of its sales to Northern Ireland. It warned that specific labeling of products sold there would require “specific production runs and segregated inventory”, and this would create additional costs for “packaging changes on each production run”, which would be particularly challenging for small suppliers.

In addition, the retailer wrote that UK-only labeling of all products subject to sanitary and phytosanitary controls – for products of animal or vegetable origin, including meat and fish – would be “an even worse outcome for M&S”.

This would require goods to be exported to the Republic of Ireland or elsewhere to have “separate production runs, packaging and segregated stock”, Norman said, adding that this is “the ‘full Irish delivery’ we have set up to solve the current problems”.

It is clear that the UK has not ruled out the possible use of product labelling.

Norman’s letter, first reported by the BBC, instead suggests that the EU and UK are considering “digital tracking” of goods, which he described as “a much better, more modern and cheaper solution”.

He adds that this would remove the need for physical checks and labeling of products destined for Northern Ireland as it gives a clear picture of where goods are being sent, describing this tracing as “very common in the food industry” .

Talks to resolve the Northern Ireland protocol reopened in September and, as the first sign of progress, agreement was reached in early January between the UK and the EU on access to a new UK database of real-time freight transport information from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Norman, a former Conservative MP, previously supported government plans to override parts of the protocol.

He said last year that some foodstuffs exported to the Republic of Ireland required 700 pages of customs documents, parts of which were written in Latin.

A labeling regime would “raise prices and reduce consumer choice, further disadvantage UK farmers and suppliers and affect the competitiveness of UK retailers in other international markets,” Norman said.

He called it “mind-boggling” in a digital age that “the government and the EU have rewinded four decades to discuss an expensive sticker-and-label ‘solution'”.

The State Department has been contacted for comment.

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