An industry body representing the UK food and soft drinks sector has shot down the Government’s new proposals for the terms of the country’s departure from the EU.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed yesterday (2 October) Northern Ireland would stay in the single market for goods in an “all-island regulatory zone” but leave the EU customs union, which would result in customs checks.

The proposals replace the controversial Irish backstop, which formed part of his predecessor Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU – but which was voted down three times by the UK parliament.

But the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) has said such checks would push up costs for consumers in Northern Ireland and lead to less choice.

Johnson is trying to reach a Brexit deal with the EU before the 31 October deadline when the UK is supposed to exit the trading bloc. He has stressed repeatedly the country will leave with or without an agreement. 

Under the plans, the UK wants to introduce “a zone of regulatory compliance across Northern Ireland and the EU”, which London argues would “remove the need for regulatory checks and related infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, while enabling the UK and EU to maintain their own distinct customs regimes”.  

While the FDF welcomed Government efforts to find an alternative to the Irish backstop, the industry body said the new proposals “don’t work for shoppers and consumers”.

It pointed out Ireland is the UK food and drink industry’s largest export market but in the event of Johnson’s proposals being accepted, “more than half” of all poultry and fresh produce would require physical checks.

FDF chief executive Ian Wright explained in a statement why the proposals will not work. “That’s because they ask food and drink businesses operating in Northern Ireland to pay – through new bureaucracy and costs – for the Government’s inability to agree a comprehensive exit deal,” Wright said.

“It is a fallacy to suggest that there would be a small number of physical checks on food travelling across the Irish border. Only a deal which maintains frictionless trade across the North-South and East-West routes will protect choice and availability for UK shoppers and consumers.”

Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, said yesterday after studying Johnson’s proposals that “there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop”, ahead of an October meeting of the European Council.

Customs rules are also a key area of tension and any new agreement must have “a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EU’s single market and Ireland’s place in it”, Juncker said.

Juncker said the Commission will now study the proposals ” objectively”. Meetings between the EU and UK negotiators “will take place in Brussels over the coming days”.