Richard North, 13/09/2021  

In my piece on port health inspections last week, with border checks of SPS products entering the country from the EU due to start on 1 October, I speculated briefly on the effects of a delay in introducing these checks.

The issue here is that local authority port health services, up and down the country – which actually carry out these checks – have invested a considerable amount in expanding and training their inspection teams.

And, while local authorities have had some financial help from central government, especially in covering the capital costs of building or enlarging border control posts, ongoing operational costs have to be met from fees charged to the importers of goods.

It follows, I wrote last week, that if the government doesn't go ahead on 1 October with the border inspections, it will dump unrecoverable costs on local authorities; they will still have to bear the employment and other operational costs or running the services, but will have no fee income to cover them.

Unless the government agreed to cover these costs, port health authorities might find themselves having to shed staff, making large numbers of newly-appointed inspectors redundant. Then, by the time the regime is reintroduced, there may be no authorities available to run it, as it would be extremely difficult to recruit new staff.

Now, it transpires, the government is seriously considering suspending the checks (with the Telegraph insisting on calling them "customs checks", which they are not).

Amid concerns that the checks "will fuel further disruption to goods flowing across the Channel and hammer consumers with higher prices", we are told that senior UK officials have confirmed that a decision to delay the checks is now "highly likely".

One suitably anonymous "senior source" states that an announcement is expected imminently, with a range of options being considered. One of those is a delay of six months or more.

There appear to be, though, splits within government over the mooted postponement. Some officials are said to be convinced that another extension will merely prolong the uncertainty for businesses and prevent them from adjusting to the reality of post-Brexit trade.

However, it seems that concerns over the impact on the supply chain may prevail. To that affect, the Telegraph offers a "comfort quote" from Adam Marshall, former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce. He obligingly tells us that: "From a whole economy perspective, given the supply chain crisis and the inflation pressures, delaying friction on imports means no additional transport costs, no additional price pressures from that".

Another senior business figure is called in aid to add: "I wouldn't be surprised if they delayed, given the pressure it is going to put on supply chains coming into the country".

Meanwhile, a third says: "I don't believe we're going to be ready for the disruption to the supply chain. We’re still going to want to eat salami next year. There's so many things that will be disrupted if we do it straight away". He adds: "It would probably be in the interests of the consumers of the UK if the SPS controls were delayed into 2022".

Nevertheless, the Telegraph does note that delaying the new checks is likely to provoke a backlash from UK exporters. They have been forced to comply with the full suite of SPS checks when sending goods into the EU.

Many have been worried about the competitive disadvantage between British exporters and their EU competitors. One business figure complains: "It is an unfair and asymmetrical situation and it's not right. It's not a position that can stay in place indefinitely".

Nothing is said, though, about the adverse impact on local authorities – possibly because the Telegraph doesn't even realise that the checks are carried out by council port health services. But collectively, even if the checks are delayed only for a further six months, they stand to be out of pocket to the tune of several million pounds – the shortfall having to come from the same budgets which fund social care.

But, in terms of "backlash", this may be the least of it. It can surely be only a matter of time before people start realising that we are importing foods and other goods from EU member states, which are produced to standards over which the UK has no control, and sometimes very little information – as we are now excluded from the EU's surveillance systems.

And while the assumption is that the food sent here is produced to rigorous EU standards, monitored by European Commission officials, this has not always been the case, and we have no means directly of ascertaining whether standards are being enforced.

This is illustrated by reports in Dutch newspapers at the beginning of this month, about the conduct of the Dutch Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority (NVWA) over the standards maintained by the Belgian-owned meat products company, Ter Beke, operating under the Offerman banner, from a factory in Aalsmeer, 13 km to the south-west of Amsterdam, close to the famous flower market.

Although the plant has since closed, in 2019 it was implicated in a serious Listeria outbreak from which 35 people became seriously ill, six people died and two pregnant women had miscarriages. Although the outbreak was notified by the European Food Safety Authority, it didn't name the companies involved, even though they supplied the Aldi supermarket chain, which trades in the UK.

But, from de Volkskrant and other Dutch media, that prior to the outbreak, it emerges that the NVWA had repeatedly told Offerman to cease applying over-long shelf life code to their products – a significant issue in listeriosis control, where the bacteria can grow slowly under refrigerated conditions.

In 2016 and 2017, the NVWA had rejected several shelf life studies from the meat company. Offerman, for instance, stated that its luncheon meat could be stored for 31 days without properly substantiating the claim. The NVWA maintained a shelf life of 21 days was more appropriate.

With the problem unresolved, though, after 2017, the NVWA responded by temporarily ceasing routine checks. Subsequently, it claimed insufficient capacity, that it was "too busy"' to carry out re-inspections and needed to concentrate on "other priorities".

Only in September 2019, just before listeria outbreak became public, did the NVWA resume checks, when the company was still applying use-by dates that were too long. It was fined for multiple offences and, the same year, listeria bacteria was found on cutting machines, in drains and on the walls of the company's premises. Salami, roast beef and chicken breast that had been processed in the Aalsmeer factory were found to be consistently contaminated with the listeria bacteria. Millions of product packs were recalled, including ham and chicken fillets.

Offerman was again fined but the company still considered renovating its affected cutting rooms. Then, it was found that listeria was lodged in the walls and the cost of cleaning and decontaminating them turned out to be too high – saying a great deal for the standards approved by veterinary inspectors. The factory has now been permanently closed, with the loss of sixty jobs.

Adding to the detail, the regional newspaper, de Limburger (no link) pointed out that staffing in the NVWA had been cut considerably under former CDA ministers Veerman and Bleker. In addition, the regulator had been transferred from the Ministry of Health to Economic Affairs in 2003, as a result of which inspectors often had to deal with conflicting interests between food safety and the economy.

Since then, the functioning of the NVWA has often been criticised. In the past two years alone, multiple damning reports have been published: in slaughterhouses, NVWA vets have been allowing improper practices without intervention, complaining of intimidation. Supervision of pig exports has been sub-standard, with vets allowing the transport of sick and lame animals.

Last year, Deloitte was asked to investigate the regulator and concluded that the NVWA cannot cope with its workload and is failing in two thirds of its tasks, risking both food safety and animal welfare. In addition, the organisation is ridden with internal struggles.

In this country, through 1988 to 1990, we had our own Listeria "scare", which had a massive and long-lasting effect on the conduct of food safety controls, including the transfer of responsibility of policy-making from the Ministry of Agriculture to an "independent" food safety agency.

Since the turn of the century, the UK had been increasingly reliant on the EU for its food safety policy, with veterinary inspectors and their fabled coloured crayons. But the Offerman outbreak is by no means the only food scandal to affect EU-produced food, with memories of the 2013 horsemeat scandal still fresh.

Now that we have left the EU, if Brexit is to mean anything, the UK should be insisting on border inspections to protect us from unsound EU-produced food, and systems which seem incapable of maintaining basic standards. When it comes to disrupting the food chain, sooner, one might say, empty shelves than full coffins.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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