A Co Down food firm has hit out at the Government as hold-ups at ports threaten to stop its supply of lettuce, courgettes and peppers.
John McCann MBE, owner of Willowbrook Foods in Killinchy, said problems at ports as a result of increased red tape could threaten the flow of salad vegetables usually imported from southern Europe in the winter months.
His company is the largest processor of lettuce on the island of Ireland.
The businessman said that on top of lowered sales as a result of Covid-19, challenges for importers arising from the Irish Sea border are complicating his business.
He said: "The customs is a shambles and NI businesses operating in the perishable agri-food industry are being put in danger.
"The problems of NI businesses have not been understood and they're ignored.
"Around 40% of our goods are exported to Scotland and England and we have no issues sending them out but when goods come in that's where problems arise."
Managing director Jonathan Magowan said the business had signed up to the Trusted Traders' Scheme. He said it had hoped to benefit from the three-month grace period applying to supermarkets and others shipping foods into NI.
But he said: "We then found out that scheme was only open to traders with a GB address and NI was excluded.
"As producers in NI we've had to delay lorries and we are relying on suppliers to do the right paperwork and some have said that if processes aren't simplified they may have to pull out of supplying here or charge more.
"We were told all along that we would be in an equal position as the rest of the UK but that's not the case."
Mr McCann bad weather had also hit supplies from Spain. "I would like to see a sensible approach to extremely perishable commodities like lettuce coming into NI. You can't mess with fresh food."
Mr McCann said: “We’ve been misled by the Government. People say you’d time to sort out. No, we didn’t. Everything was changing non-stop. People couldn’t prepare for it. These excess checks are putting a burden on NI businesses particularly those dealing with perishable foods. A lorry can’t sit another day if the paperwork is wrong.
“We need to be treated as part of the UK because with food you can’t play around.”
The Labour Party has called on the Government to take action to protect all businesses impacted by delays and hold ups from trade disruption between GB and NI, which has resulted in empty shelves at supermarkets here.
And Charles Hogg, commercial director at Unsworth, a customs broker said he expects issues to worsen. “Traders are still just not ready and HMG is just not doing enough to support them.”
He said there were backlogs of movement as many companies lack clarity. “This issue is likely to get worse over the coming days as huge volumes are stuck on trailers in yards awaiting dispatch.”
A Government spokesperson, said: “Goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and no lorries have been turned back at Northern Ireland’s ports. The grace periods for businesses moving goods between GB and NI are in operation and working well.
“The Trader Support Service (TSS) provides free advice and support to businesses of all sizes and since the 1st January, over 99% of TSS processed declarations have been completed within 15 minutes.
“We recognise some challenges faced by haulage, such as on the issue of groupage, and we are working intensively with industry to resolve these.”
The DUP has called on the Government to override the NI Protocol which has been at the heart of the disruptions. But Alliance North Down MP Stephen Farry said triggering Article 16 which allows the EU or UK to “unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures” if its application leads to persisting serious economic difficulties was not a remedy.