By Lisa MacNeil, President of Tree of Life Canada
Enjoy British cheese while you can, because, thanks to glacially slow trade negotiations between Canada and the U.K., they may all soon be distant memories.
As Canadian and British negotiations for a new bilateral trade relationship endlessly drag, food importers across Canada are left wondering whether they will be able import British cheeses at all in 2024. Time is running out, and the small importers and local specialty shops that satisfy the demand of British cheese lovers across the country, are about to become collateral damage.
As Canada’s largest importer of British cheeses, my not-so-large company, Tree of Life, has been standing on the edge of the cliff for well over a year. But ours is just one of many businesses facing the possibility of losing market access, and the precious business relationships we’ve built and grown over half a century.
An endangered niche market
In Canada, cheese importing is made possible through quotas allocated by the Canadian government. If a would-be importer does not have quota, they face a prohibitive 245.5% tariff on the price of their product. In other words the cost of a simple piece of British Cheese will nearly triple, therefore taking it off the tables of most Canadian consumers.
Currently, importers of British cheeses are able to import British cheese products only if they have been granted quota under the WTO Cheese Tariff Rate Quota (TRQ) EU Reserve. This quota was originally available when Britain was in the EU, but since Brexit, the access has only been conditionally extended through something called the Trade Continuity Agreement (TCA) cheese letters – while trade negotiators work out the details of a broader Canada-UK trade agreement.
Unfortunately, the broader agreement is still not close to being completed and the “cheese letters” will expire at the end of 2023, and unless both governments agree to extend it, there is a very real chance that British cheese could disappear from the Canadian market.
The main victims will be Canadian small businesses and cheese lovers
The main victims of the expiry of the “cheese letters” will be the Canadian consumers, who buy fine British cheeses, and food importers, most of which are small to mid-sized enterprises. And because cheese imports must be planned in advance, 2024 purchasing decisions are already being made (this includes agreements with British suppliers, Canadian retailers, etc.), which makes the negotiations timelines even more critical.
For many local cheese stores, British shops, and other small and medium businesses that are trying to stay afloat in a difficult economy, these market access challenges may mean the difference between meeting the payroll and bankruptcy.
We need an agreement to allow British cheese before it’s too late
Canada has the tools to save our sector and protect small and medium-sized businesses. That is why, on behalf of cheese importers, cheese retailers and the individuals and families that enjoy British cheese, we are calling on the governments of Canada and the UK to come to an agreement that ensures continued market access of British cheeses in 2024 or, at the very least, extend the validity of the TCA Cheese Letters.
In this challenging business environment and ongoing period of economic uncertainty, small luxuries, like British cheeses, provide jobs and give enjoyment to thousands of people. Canadian consumers and businesses should not have to suffer the consequences of the fallout from Brexit. All we are saying is give cheese a chance.