Richard North, 19/04/2021  

There is no fixed methodology set out for determining the classification of shellfish waters. Essentially, it is up to each member state and third country to decide on their own sampling programmes for each of the harvesting areas within their jurisdictions, and then to test the waters to ascertain whether they meet EU criteria.

The way this works in practice is that the Commission's Food & Veterinary Office (FVO) carry out site inspections to evaluate the sampling programmes in place, and the conformity with the criteria. For third countries, where the FVO considers that the programme is inadequate – or not properly implemented – it will make recommendations for improvement.

If the third country does not improve its performance, and imports from the relevant areas fail to meet end product microbiological criteria, when tested by at the border control posts, testing frequencies are increased and, if a high level of failure is experienced, the Commission will set in motion the process of delisting the offending country, thereby preventing it from exporting produce to the EU.

Should, on basis of results from its established sampling programmes, a third country finds that the current classifications no longer apply to certain waters, it is at liberty to upgrade or downgrade the water quality in the affected shellfish areas. That should be a routine matter which will, in the normal course of events, be notified to the Commission, with country also updating its own website.

Therefore, on the face of it, there is nothing exceptional in today's report in the Mail, that the Food Standards Agency has upgraded the waters off Kent, Essex, Devon, Cornwall and Northumberland, previously set at Class B, to Class A.

This will, of course, have the effect of permitting live bivalve molluscs from these areas to be exported to the EU when, so far, businesses have been unable to send product unless previously depurated in the UK.

Understandably, there are suspicions that this sudden upgrade is all too convenient, and that the system has been manipulated in order to bypass what the Mail and many others insist on calling a "ban" on undepurated product from Class B waters.

However, an unidentified source asserts that the Food Standards Agency carried out an "independent" review, which " was conducted according to long-standing and stringent protocols on health standards". This source the goes on to say that "The UK is a world leader in environmental and health standards, and we take our responsibilities on food exports extremely seriously".

What is puzzling here, though, is that the FSA, according to its own website has adopted a "long term classification" system for assessing Class B waters.

This is in place to show greater stability in the classifications which are based on compliance over five years instead of the standard three years, the effect of which is that any waters qualifying for upgrades must have shown long-term sustained improvement over a number of years. One-off sampling results would not allow waters to be reclassified.

So far, though, we don't seem to have had any official statements either from the government or the Food Standards Agency - nor any response, official or otherwise, from the European Commission. Initially, only the Mail and the Express carried the story, so it was quite possible that we would see denials or "clarifications" from officials.

Nevertheless, this didn't stop the Express from crowing headline that declares: "Brussels surrenders! EU says it will accept British shellfish after 'Brexit revenge'", without any evidence to support its assertions. This compares with the Mail's headline: "EU may have to lift British shellfish ban after UK seas are 'upgraded' following Brussels' 'Brexit revenge' rule-change".

The "revenge" meme being floated is the suggestion that Brussels imposed a shellfish ban as a retaliation for Brexit. With the narrative set, it now beyond the capability of mere mortals to prevail, by pointing out that there is no "ban" as such – rather, a refusal of the Commission to publish a model export health certificate.

Since the first publication of the "surrender" story, though, the Times has joined in with its own version, headlined: "Easier rules are help to few British fishermen banned by EU".

From this we learn that the easement applies only to 11 out of 266 sea areas, including the Thames estuary, Fleet in Dorset and St Austell Bay in Cornwall. Thus, only a minority of British shellfish exporters will benefit from the reclassification.

The Times thus cites its own source at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who says that that reports that the dispute was close to being resolved were exaggerated because most shellfish would remain "banned" – even though, technically, they are not banned.

This "clarification", coming so swiftly, has given the Mail and Express stories a half-life of about five or six hours, not even lasting overnight before, effectively, being debunked.

Despite the limited easement, one might still expect of Commission response - given the fraught background to this development. It might call in the FSA's sampling data, and compare them with previous years. The Commission may also be asking why this apparently miraculous improvement in water quality has been confined to England and why Food Standards Scotland hasn't witnessed a similar miracle in the waters under its jurisdiction.

And whether border control post officials in France and elsewhere will be prepared to accept the export health certificates from the newly designated Class A waters remains to be seen. Exporters might also find their consignments delayed if officials decide to increase the frequency of microbiological testing, to verify the new designations.

Even if what was being reported is correct, in respect of the FSA's moves – according the Times rendition, English shellfish exporters are no means out of the woods. Redesignation, even in a limited number of areas, could give the Commission the excuse to implement an actual ban – on all shellfish exports – on the basis that it no longer has confidence in the UK's classification scheme.

With that, one notes that the FSA's reclassifications are being described as "temporary" and, under pressure from Brussels, it is not impossible that they could be withdrawn.

On the broader front, with the European Parliament still not having ratified the TCA, arrangements for the Partnership Council have not been finalised, so there is no mechanism for invoking the dispute procedures if the Commission does take action to block further exports. Shellfish exporters, therefore, could end up in a considerably worse position than they are now.

It goes without saying, though, that none of this gets any airing in the media. The Times uses the bare bones of the story as a hook to run a sob-story about Nicki and John Holmyard, who employ their children and 12 other people in running Offshore Shellfish, which has two sets of mussel ropes covering 10sq km.

They have 2,500 tonnes of mussels worth up to £6 million growing on ropes but no prospect of getting them to former customers in Belgium and France. They say that they will have to dismantle the farms unless trade resumes by September, by which time the mussels need to be harvested.

With that amount of money at stake, one might think that they would be considering setting up a depuration plant of their own, as have other shellfish exporters in the region. But, we must come to terms with the fact that the legacy media's forays into the news business no longer encompass Brexit.

If the shellfish exporters are no better off, it might also be said that this applies also to the average reader, who is no better informed about a complex and long-running drama.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few