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EU referendum: I don’t feel like we know enough about what will happen if we do decide to leave

By Rachel Martin

Lorries packed with perishables stuck at the border, more expensive raw materials and levied exports are among the fears of food producers when it comes to Thursday’s vote.

Despite promises of fresh trade negotiations, food producers say they will be the ones left to pick up the pieces in a post-EU Northern Ireland.

With cross-border trade a key export market, the consensus among food producers here appears to be one of favour to remain in the EU.

The agri-food sector here is one of the biggest contributors to the Northern Ireland economy for revenue and employment and is the region’s largest manufacturing industry.

While some have cracked overseas markets, the Republic of Ireland remains Northern Ireland’s biggest trading partner across all sectors —including food.

A third of our exports cross the border each year — bringing in around £2.11bn despite an 8.1% fall in trade with the south in the past year.

Overall, the last financial year saw a 65% rise in the food region’s export sales (up £7m).

With ambitious targets set on growing industry turnover to £7bn by 2020, export markets will be more important than ever in a booming Northern Ireland. The majority of our commercial food and drink income comes from outside Northern Ireland (some £4bn).

The latest HMRC figures show that food and live animal exports accounted for 16% of all Northern Ireland exports last year, amounting to £1.02bn.

This amount was down 12% on the 2014 total of £1.16bn. Breaking down the sector, the largest reductions were in meat and meat preparations — down £84m or 21%, and dairy products and birds’ eggs which were down £61m or 17%.

Northern Ireland’s exports to the EU as whole, which includes the Republic, fell by 4.6% last year to £3.46bn.

Speaking to Belfast Telegraph, Food NI chief executive Michele Shirlow said: “The thing which is coming through from most companies is a bit of confusion about what will happen if we will leave the European Union.

“The major concerns are around the south of Ireland which is a key export market and not wanting to have any borders and also markets like Scotland where they don’t want to lose any business.

“Also, I think the dependence on a lot of labour which comes in from outside of Northern Ireland will be a concern.”

Shauna McCarney-Blair, founder of baby food business Heavenly Tasty — and Businesswoman of the Year at the recent Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year award — says she is afraid of what Brexit could mean for her business.

She already exports to EU and non-countries including France, Finland and the Middle East — but despite her company’s success outside the EU, she worries that Brexit would make it harder for her to trade.

Just a month ago, the Co Tyrone mum-of-four announced a deal which would see her products hit the shelves of more than 1,000 UK stores including 500 Tesco outlets and hundreds of Waitrose and Morrisons supermarkets.

The deal meant the proportion of products exported dropped from 75% to around 30-40%, but exports are still a very important part of her business.

She said: “We have been discussing it a lot in the office and I’m a little bit nervous about it. I’m not a political person at all but I worry about the way it will affect my business and I’m looking forward to seeing what the result will be.

“I’ll be voting to stay in. I’m just going with my gut feeling on it. It may well price us out of the market and could mean we would have to add on more costs to our production.

“I don’t feel like we know enough about what will happen, whereas if we stay, we will continue doing what we are at the moment.”

Meanwhile, business chiefs, including Dale Farm’s David Dobbin, rallied in support of the UK staying in the EU as David Cameron urged fellow MPs against the “leap in the dark” of a Brexit.

And the Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association has also urged members to vote to stay.

However, despite its members benefiting from EU subsidies, the Ulster Farmers Union has said it will not take a stance on the issue and many farmers appear to be calling to leave.

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