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Hastily announced extra Brexit charges will hit independent cheese sector

Posted: 1 May 2024

By Patrick McGuigan

Shipping containers
Shipping containers

The price of cheese from the EU is set to rise yet again after the Government announced hefty charges to pay for post-Brexit customs checks, less than a month before they were introduced.

Cheese importers were wrong footed by the announcement from Defra on 3rd April that products of animal origin would be subject to a new ‘common user charge’ of up to £145 per consignment from 30th April, when physical customs checks were finally introduced. The charge follows other post-Brexit controls, including health certificates for raw milk cheeses and charcuterie, introduced on 31st January.

The common user charge is tiered with ‘low risk’ foods, such as pasteurised cheeses, facing a maximum fee per consignment of £50, while ‘medium risk’ raw milk cheeses and charcuterie are capped at £145. Most mixed pallets will be subject to the higher charge, said importers, and the extra costs will be passed on to retailers and shoppers. This comes after a 20% retail price increase on Continental cheeses last year, according to Kantar, driven by big rises in feed, labour and energy costs.

At London’s Buchanans Cheesemonger, owner Rhuaridh Buchanan said typical freight costs for a  pallet of cheese from France were €190 (roughly £165). 

“So, this new charge almost doubles the cost overnight,” he said. “My freight costs to get cheese from the EU are only about 42p a kilo. But when you add on all the charges and bureaucracy that have come in after Brexit that figure is more like £1.30 per kilo.”

He said the new charges came as a “total shock” and had been announced far too late. “We can’t just put up our prices overnight. We had just communicated that we were adjusting prices to account for the new health certificate requirements, when these new charges landed in our laps.” 

At The Fine Cheese Co, which supplies 1,200 independent retailers, purchasing manager Ben Robinson said: “The most infuriating part is that the new charges are targeted at the independent sector. The multiple retailers will easily absorb the extra cost. Our costs per shipment for raw milk cheese and charcuterie could be four times the pre-Brexit cost.”

Philip Crouch, owner of the Parma Ham Stand and Mozzarella Stand at Borough Market, said the new controls posed “an existential challenge to the way we do business”, estimating the extra costs would add up to £12-£20k a year, resulting in higher retail prices. 

This article first appeared in the May 2024 edition of Fine Food Digest .