Supermarkets selling into Northern Ireland will have a grace period to adapt their supply systems to the post-Brexit trading reality, the British minister in charge of implementing the divorce deal said on Wednesday.
When the United Kingdom exits the European Union's orbit on 31 December, Northern Ireland will remain aligned to the EU's single market and goods arriving in Northern Ireland will be subject to EU customs rules.
That has created a host of questions about how goods will go from Britain to Northern Ireland -- and how to stop Northern Ireland becoming a back door into the EU's single market.
After agreement at a joint UK/EU committee working out how to implement the 2020 divorce deal, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove said that supermarkets would have time to adapt to new arrangements.
"This deal will keep goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in January and indeed provide some necessary additional flexibilities," Gove told parliament, saying the move was in response to requests for a grace period.
All of Britain's big four supermarket groups - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons - have a presence in Northern Ireland.
Gove said retailers in Northern Ireland bringing in food products from Britain will be exempt from having to complete export health certificates for three months from 31 December.
On the specific issue of bringing in chilled meats, including sausages, Gove said the UK government had secured a six month grace period during which there will be "absolutely no change" to current regulations.
He said the UK government would keep the operation of the agreement under review and that more detail would be provided for small and medium-sized enterprises once the joint committee "concludes on exactly how we can safeguard their interests."
The main trade body representing independent retailers and wholesalers asked for immediate clarification on whether the three-month grace period will apply to its 1,300 members.
"At a meeting today with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I asked him directly if this applied to our members and he did not answer my question," Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said in a statement.
"It is absolutely unacceptable that the UK Government could make a major statement and not have this information available, which could potentially result in a third of our local independent food and grocery sector being at a competitive disadvantage to large supermarkets."