Checks on certain food imports from Europe have been delayed once more by the government in the United Kingdom.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, Brexit opportunities minister, said the approach will be revised before coming into force by the end of 2023.
Full checks on animal and plant products from the EU were scheduled to have started in July 2022, following previous postponements starting from when the UK left the European Union.
Controls introduced in January 2021 on the highest risk imports of animal and plant products will continue. Full checks would include export health certificates and physical controls at borders. Some initial measures on imports into the UK called pre-notification are in place. The EU introduced full border checks in January 2021.
New date in 2023
The National Farmers Union said the decision poses a risk to biosecurity, animal health and food safety while the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health said the move could have public health consequences. However, it was welcomed by groups such as the Cold Chain Federation.
Rees-Mogg said the decision will allow British businesses to focus on recovery from the pandemic and global supply chain issues as well as ensuring new costs are not passed on to consumers.
“It’s vital that we have the right import controls regime in place, so we’ll now be working with industry to review these remaining controls so that they best suit the UK’s own interests. We want the process for importing goods from the EU to be safe, secure and efficient and we want to harness innovative new technologies to streamline processes and reduce frictions,” he said.
The new model will be based on risk assessment and use data and technology. It will be published in autumn and the new controls regime will apply from the end of 2023.
Beginning in July, Sanitary and Phytosanitary checks currently at destination were set to be moved to a Border Control Post and there would have been restrictions on chilled meats from the EU, but these actions will no longer be introduced.
The British Meat Processors Association said at least the move brought clarity but it was a double edged sword for businesses.
“On the one hand it makes importing the one quarter of food that stocks UK supermarket shelves cheaper and easier to get into the country. In some cases, foods that we import from the EU like sausages, pork pies and other chilled meat preparations, are prohibited from being sent the other way by British exporters. There is also the risk of serious food fraud the longer it’s known that goods will simply be waved through at British ports,” according to the association.
National Farmers Union President Minette Batters said it was “astounding” that the government was taking such an approach to checks for agri-food imports from the EU.
“These checks are absolutely crucial to the nation’s biosecurity, animal health and food safety and without them we really do leave ourselves at risk. For the introduction of these checks to have been delayed three times was bad enough but to now have them essentially scrapped in favor of an unknown system is unacceptable,” Batters said.
Gary McFarlane, Northern Ireland director at Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, said the move to drop checks and inspections on imports represents a clear dereliction of duty from the government.
“Unfortunately, it appears to be yet another erosion of the key health protection mechanisms this country relies on and heightens the danger of food fraud and crime. Food of unknown origin and questionable quality could well end up on our supermarket shelves and in our homes,” he said.
Richard Ballantyne, chief executive of the British Ports Association, said the announcement was a major policy change.
“Many UK port operators have built Border Control Posts in preparation for post Brexit checks and all were due to be ready. Most ports will need to recoup some of their construction and operating costs for their infrastructure and this is traditionally done through levying a charge on importers. Ports have been recruiting staff to operate the facilities but now this needs to stop,” Ballantyne said.
Support for delay
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said it would have made a bad situation much worse.
“What is most positive is the decision not to simply delay again, but to follow through on the commitment to rethink the way these controls work. What we have learnt is that no amount of preparation time can solve the fundamental harm that complex, load by load paperwork processes have on ability and willingness to trade. So we can now take the time available to build new, better ways to implement these rules and meet the promise of establishing the most innovative border in the world for our food traders,” said.
Katie Doherty, CEO of the International Meat Trade Association, said although some will be frustrated with yet another delay, for many it is welcome due to current supply chain pressures.
“There has been slightly more notice than the usual last-minute announcements which will be appreciated by industry. It will be essential that government works both with industry and port health authorities on their target operating model,” she said.
Martin McTague, from the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “Imposition of full import controls this summer would have meant yet another burden for small firms which are already wrestling with new trade rules and spiraling operating costs. This move will give them more time to prepare for future changes and reassess supply chains.”
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)