Sky News has seen a letter to Mr Gove from the heads of more than 30 trade associations, in which they argue that their focus on mitigating the potential consequences of a hard Brexit means they have insufficient resources to address other policy issues.
The letter, which has been signed by the bosses of organisations including the Food and Drink Federation, National Farmers’ Union and UK Hospitality, urges the government to halt the publication of proposals such as those relating additional curbs on the advertising of sugary foods until the Brexit uncertainty is over.
The plea to Mr Gove highlights food industry chiefs’ anger about the continued lack of clarity over the terms of the UK’s departure from the EU.
“In fewer than 50 days, the UK will leave the European Union,” the letter, which was sent last Friday, said.
“The legal default is that we will do so irrespective of whether or not we have signed a withdrawal agreement and, at present, that no-deal Brexit looks ever more the likeliest outcome.”
The food industry executives said the focus on Brexit meant that “at this moment of potential crisis for our industry, it cannot be ‘business as usual’ within government”.
“Neither we nor our members have the physical resources nor organisational bandwidth to engage with and properly respond to non-Brexit related policy consultations or initiatives at this time.
“Government has recruited many extra staff; we cannot.”
The 32 trade association signatories, which also include the Federation of Bakers, Potato Processors Association and National Association of Cider Manufacturers, demand that Mr Gove and his colleagues suspend “current and planned consultations that will impact food and drink… until this uncertainty is over”.
“If government seeks to press ahead with these consultations it will be seen by some as a sign of bad faith and many organisations may decline to respond,” it warned.
The letter underlines the sense of frustration in the private sector at the extent to which financial and human resources are being diverted away from important policy responses towards planning for a no-deal Brexit.
Among the expected consultations that food and drink sector bosses want to be delayed, and referred to in the letter, are a deposit return scheme for England and Wales; a consistent national recycling collection service; proposals for a tax on plastic items with less than 30% recycled content; and a national action plan on the sustainable use of pesticides.
The letter to Mr Gove comes a fortnight after some of the UK’s biggest retailers, including Asda, Marks & Spencer and J Sainsbury, warned that a no-deal Brexit would undermine the food industry’s complex supply chain and threaten the country’s food security.
The full list of signatories to the latest plea to the Environment Secretary also comprises the heads of the Agricultural Industries Confederation; Association of Bakery Ingredient Manufacturers; Association of Cereal Food Manufacturers; Association of Labour Providers; British Coffee Association; British Food Importers and Distributors Association; British Frozen Food Federation; British Growers Association; British Meat Processors Association; British Poultry Association; British Specialist Nutrition Association; Council for Responsible Nutrition UK; Dairy UK; Federation of Wholesale Distributors; Fresh Produce Consortium; Food and Drink Federation Scotland; Food and Drink Wales Industry Board; Health Food Manufacturers’ Association; International Meat Trade Association; Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association; Packaging Federation; Provision Trade Federation; Scotland Food and Drink; Seasoning and Spice Association; UK Flavour Association; and the UK Tea & Infusions Association.