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Martin Howe QC said a solution needed to be identified urgently – with labels for items scheduled to arrive on January 1 needing to be printed weeks in advance. All eyes are currently on the Internal Market Bill, which would give the Government the power to override certain aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol, and which Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists is necessary to protect the “integrity” of the UK.
However, Mr Howe, chairman of Lawyers for Britain, said the proposed legislation did nothing to solve something the labelling problem, which he suggested the Government may need to introduce another Bill to deal with.
He told Express.co.uk: “It’s probably not the most interesting area of law – but on the other hand if it goes wrong it could create very serious problems.
“Apparently the people involved in goods labelling think that the regulations will require, as from January 1, different labels on goods according to the UK law, from goods sold according to EU law.
“It’s to do with things like the EU requiring to have the name and address of someone in the EU who is responsible for the goods, that sort of thing.
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“The problem is, and it may sound a totally trivial thing, under the law, if you’ve got a packet of frozen chips, for example, you are not allowed to sell them in the EU and therefore you would not be able to sell them in Northern Ireland.
“So if you are a supermarket which has a supply chain across the whole of the UK, what do you do?”
Mr Howe was the only non-MP on the so-called Star Chamber which offered crucial legal advice to the European Research Group (ERG) on the backstop arrangements for Northern Ireland contained within Theresa May’s draft withdrawal agreement last year.
He said: “One fears that as from January 1 you would have to have completely separate supply chains just for labelling reasons.”
“What about the time needed to make the changes and reprint the labels and so on?
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By itself, this could lead to food shortages in Northern Ireland
Martin Howe QC
“By itself, this could lead to food shortages in Northern Ireland.”
Mr Howe said the situation was so serious Mr Johnson might have little choice other than to introduce further legislation.
He explained: “If it was just UK law you would expect the UK Government to pass a statutory instrument to make sure it is all okay.
“But the problem is, because of the direct effect of the Northern Ireland protocol, it may be very difficult for the UK easily to do that.
“They might need to do an overwrite on that one as well to make things work.”
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Mr Howe believes issue had up to now been under-reported.
He said: “It’s one of those things that is just sort of bubbling away under the surface.
“There have been various trade press things which I have picked up on about how this is going to be a nightmare.
“One thing people don’t understand is that many supermarket goods are made by suppliers, say in China, labelled in China and then transported and then sold weeks later.
“So you have got to know what labels are legal weeks and weeks in advance because if you don’t, you won’t have conforming goods.
“It will be a big mess unless it gets sorted.”
Tesco has 51 stores in Northern Ireland, employing roughly 9,000 people.
A spokeswoman told Express.co.uk: “We are aware of product labelling changes and we are working with our suppliers to prepare for these.”
Express.co.uk has also approached Sainsbury’s, which has 31 stores, and Asda, which has 17, for comments.
Andrew Opie, Director of Food & Sustainability at the British Retail Consortium (BRC) told Express.co.uk: “Labelling remains one of a number of issues that must be addressed in the negotiations between the UK and EU.
“It is imperative for UK consumers that we agree a free-trade deal that prevents supermarkets and their customers being landed with a £3 billion tariff bill.
“In order for this to happen both the UK and EU will need to find compromises that allow a deal to happen.”
A Cabinet Office spokeswoman told Express.co.uk: “The Government is committed to working with stakeholders to ensure there are workable arrangements for Northern Ireland businesses, and to providing clear operational guidance so that businesses can prepare for the end of the transition period and beyond.
“That work is ongoing and further details will be set out in due course”.
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