Tuesday 17 September 2019

Cheese makers fear the fallout from Brexit

Exporters to the UK could be hit with a 12 per cent duty, at least

Concubhar Ó Liatháin

"Minister, what people want to know is, say, you're a cheesemaker in Mallow tonight, will the Government step in to pay the wages when that company loses all of its British business because of a hard Brexit which is still the likely outcome?"

This was the question posed by rtÉ Primetime interviewer Miriam O'Callaghan to Finance Minister Paschal O'Donoghue in the wake of the latest twist in the Brexit saga in Westminster on Tuesday night.

While the minister dodged the 'will the Government pay the wages' element of the question, he was at pains to emphasise the supports already in place for businesses reliant on their export trade to the UK as B-Day, October 31, approaches.

Had she posed the question to an actual cheesemaker in north Cork, the response would not be as rosy as that of Minister O'Donoghue's reply.

Frank Shinnick of Fermoy Natural Cheese told The Corkman that, even in advance of Brexit, his company was choked with bureaucracy and fears what further delays and chaos will be awaiting down the tracks beyond Brexit Day on 31 October.

The company, which won a silver medal at the prestigious World Cheese Awards more than 10 years ago, stopped producing cheese for a period in 2014 as a knock-on effect from the Troika and the age of austerity.

However, the company has now restarted business and already has advance orders for its award winning cheeses. He is hopeful that Brexit will not get in the way of his prime target, those buying Fermoy Natural Cheese for Christmas hampers.

"We're waiting three months already for an EU number which will allow us to export to the UK, where we have customers lining up for our cheeses but we can't get product to them while we wait on this number.

"And this is before Brexit happens!"

As far as other government support and information in advance of Brexit, this north Cork cheesemaker was less than impressed.

"Nothing is what I've got," he said.

Other local cheesemakers were less forthcoming with comment or were not so bothered by Brexit as they weren't exporting produce to the UK.

A Dairygold spokesperson would not comment on Brexit 'at this time', while the award winning Macroom Buffalo Cheese representative said that the company did not export its cheese so it was unaffected.

For Coolea Cheese in the Múscraí Gaeltacht it's an anxious time. The company exports a little over eight tonne of its award winning Edam to the UK annually where its main customers are Waitrose and the London Cheesemonger chain.

Dick Willems of Coolea Cheese is 'cautiously optimistic' that he will pull through this crisis though he stresses that the uncertainty in the UK is a cause of concern.

"There will be a 12 per cent duty on dairy products so that's going to pose a question to the UK people whether they will accommodate that within their slice of the price or not."

He is particularly focused on the business with the supermarket chain Waitrose where the customers tend to be more price conscious, while he feels those who go to a speciality cheesemonger won't be so price sensitive as the mark up there is normally much higher.

"Of course it's not just about selling cheese, there's also the paperwork and we don't know how much extra work in terms of export documents will have to be prepared.

Back in Fermoy, Frank Shinnick believes Brexit could well have the impact of the Troika, which forced companies like his out of business, albeit temporarily.

"Before the Troika came we had seven people on the payroll - that's three girls, two students, myself and my wife," he said.

"Back then people would compare prices of product around 10 per cent of the time - after that it was 85 per cent and the higher end product was suffering.

"If you remember then, some families were living on sausages!"

In Frank's view the Irish Government erred strategically in not dealing directly with the UK, where he was doing around 60 per cent of his trade.

"It's an unforgivable mistake," he said.

Agencies such as Enterprise Ireland and Údarás na Gaeltachta have launched a preparedness campaign.