A possible ban on the import of potatoes from the UK after Brexit could have consequences for the supply in Ireland next year.
From January 1, British table potatoes and seed potatoes may be in breach of EU food safety rules.
When the UK becomes a third country, it falls outside the legal framework of the European Union’s food safety rules.
Many service points, including fryers, use British potatoes for French fries.
One of the oldest chip shops in Ireland has warned that the ban could not only change the taste and types of chips Irish consumers enjoy, but could also lead to shortages and changes in portion sizes.
Leo Burdock said they use British potatoes because of their unique quality, making them suitable for frying.
“They have a better balance, their composition is chemical, the dry matter and sugars are more suitable for frying chips, so they have that crunchiness and that taste.
“Teagasc is working to develop a better homegrown alternative, but they’re not there yet,” said Leo Burdock’s Derek Duggan.
He is responsible for potato sourcing and Leo Burdock uses Irish potatoes sometimes during the year. But, like most fryers, they usually use UK potatoes.
Mr. Duggan said Brexit is a serious problem and they are concerned about the impact on the taste that customers like.
“The supply will be affected, the quality will be different. We want to get as much homegrown stuff as possible, but that may not work,” he said.
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It is bad that Brexit could hit the chip shop, but the impact on potato growers could be much worse.
The potato crop grows from seed potatoes. Ireland was once an exporter of seed, but the sector has contracted over the past 30 years.
Irish farmers produce about 4,000 tons of seed potatoes annually. But they import 6,000 tons of seed, mostly from Scotland.
The shortage is enormous and many speculate that the seed potato sector here will have to rejuvenate to make up for the shortage. But that takes time.
Many of the major seed suppliers have pre-ordered and the crop to be sown early next year has already been imported and is in storage awaiting distribution.
In October, the Department of Agriculture issued a Trader Notification to the industry urging people to import certified seed and ware potatoes from the UK before January 1, 2021. Ware potatoes are those consumed by consumers, also known as table potatoes.
The Ministry of Agriculture’s trade notice stated: “ As of January 1, 2021, the UK will become a ‘third country’ (non-EU Member State) and the EU phytosanitary rules on trade in plants and plant products will be the Union, seed and ware potatoes will no longer apply to the UK.
“When the withdrawal agreement between the UK and the EU expires on December 31, 2020, the import of certified seed and ware potatoes from Great Britain will therefore be banned.”
The communication also outlined how resolving the problem may take time and depends on the outcome of trade negotiations between the UK and the European Union.
The communication states: “The UK has submitted an application to the EU for equivalence of ‘third countries’ for the export of certified seed potatoes and ware potatoes to the EU.
“This application must go through the EU legislative process and is not immediate. The EU has indicated that this process will only start after the trade negotiations with the UK have been concluded.”
The notice also stated, “Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain unaffected.”
The impact will not only be felt in Ireland. Some of the major food processors in Britain who make frozen chips buy their potatoes from Belgium and other EU countries. Those imports into Great Britain will also be banned.
This poses a number of problems. UK companies will struggle to get the raw material to make their frozen chips.
The potatoes normally sold in the UK will have to be sold elsewhere and growers here are concerned that the market could be flooded with spuds, causing prices to drop.
Irish potato growers produce about 350,000 tons of potatoes annually. But every year about 80,000 tonnes are imported from the UK to meet the demand in the service sector, especially deep frying.
Farmers here grow about 10,000 tons suitable for making chips, but there is a significant difference in quality and type between the British spuds and the spuds grown here.
Teagasc and Bord Bia are working with other agencies to improve the quality of the Irish harvest. Tremendous progress has been made and the investigation process continues.
Thomas McKeown grows potatoes on his farm near Kells in Co Meath. He said growers should be okay next year as there is already a lot of seed in Ireland, but he said, “It’s going to be a big deal in the future.”
Mr. McKeown is the chairman of the Irish Farmers Associations Potato Committee, and said that since he started farming more than 30 years ago, the industry has been slowly and steadily declining in size.
He said, “When I started here on the farm in the late 1980’s, the land was growing twice as many potatoes as we do today. People’s perception of potatoes has changed, some people see it as a return to famine, and we’re trying to to throw off those chains and go forward.
“But it was a staple of the diet and when the lockdown came in March, one of the things that went up in sales was potatoes, sales went up two, three times that, so it sometimes shows that people can sometimes forget where they came true. “
But Mr McKeown says there may be an opportunity for the industry, which is hugely dependent on imports from Scotland.
He said: “We have a high status here, just like Scotland (for growing seed potatoes), farmers are very good at doom and gloom, but there are opportunities. It could help to get the seed industry back on track and the public and growers more aware of where their seeds and potatoes come from. “
But the most direct impact will be in deep frying. Research by Bord Bia last year showed how much Irish love the shredder.
One in four of us goes to a traditional shredder at least once a week to buy chips. Two thirds of us mistakenly think chipper chips are Irish.
Men and millennials go to the snack bar most often. The latest finding from the Bord Bia survey is arguably the most telling texture and appearance of the chips that rank high in where we choose to buy our chips.
So the sector is concerned.
The most experienced operators know that moving to Irish poles after January 1 will make a difference and customers will notice.
At Leo Burdocks, Denis Duggan says: “We can get homegrown potatoes, they will be different, they won’t be that crunchy unfortunately, the sugar balance won’t be the same.
“It may be an opportunity to bring people into contact with homegrown stuff, but there will be a different flavor. Maybe we should adjust the salt and vinegar and what we do with the sauces.”
Crucially, on the issue of the true impact on trade, Mr. Duggan speculated that supply could be an issue.
He said the 10,000 tons of Irish potatoes suitable for French fries are limited and are only an option at certain times of the year.
“There may be a shortage, we may have to go down to smaller portions. Hopefully that isn’t the case, but we’ll have to wait,” he said.