Richard North, 16/01/2021  

Embodied in a headline from the BBC's Simon Jack – the businesses editor – is what looks like an example of fundamental intellectual laziness. It is one seen in many journalists reporting on post-Brexit events.

The headline itself reads: "Post-Brexit customs systems not fit for purpose, say meat exporters", a charge that is actually repeated in the body of Jack's story, where he says: "UK meat exporters have claimed post-Brexit customs systems are "not fit for purpose".

This might sound anodyne enough but the claim is attributed to Nick Allen, chief executive of the "British Meat Processor Association" (sic). But he of the processors (plural) association does not say that. He does not talk about the customs system but the "export health certification process" – an important distinction.

"Fundamentally", he says, in a direct quote cited by Jack, " this is not a system that was designed for a 24/7, just-in-time supply chain". It is, adds Allen, a "process was designed for moving containers of frozen meat around the world where you have a bit of leeway on time".

Where the laziness comes in is with Jack's reference to the "customs system", the automatic assumption that because the health certification is part of the border control system, it is part of the customs formalities. In his mind, "border controls" and "customs" are one and the same.

As it stands, though, the regime applied by the EU to imports of products of animal origin is not the responsibility of customs. As Jack would find if he looked it up on the Commission website, he would see that it is part of the vetrerinary border control system, entirely separate from the customs system with its own body of legislation.

However, people such as Allen rarely look up things. They waft through their privileged and over-paid lives assuming their own superior knowledge of such things is essentially correct, and are never reluctant to foist their ignorance on the nation at large.

In practical terms, of course, the distinction is of considerable importance. The system precedes customs controls, with the importer having to give advance notification of the arrival of a consignment, then following a procedure that even the Commission's best friends would agree is arcane and complex.

Indicative of the complexity of the system, when one follows the links on the Commission website, one is eventually lead to an official guidance document which, published in 2013, is actually out of date. The rules – known as "official controls" were substantially revised in 2017 and 2019.

Anyhow, the thrust of Nick Allen's complaints – further elaborated on and partially repeated – comes in additional quotes cited by Jack. Says Allen:
Fundamentally, this is not a system that was designed for a 24/7, just-in-time supply chain. The export health certification process was designed for moving containers of frozen meat around the world where you have a bit of leeway on time. No matter how much better we get at filling in the forms, it's really not fit for purpose. This is going back to the dark ages in terms of a process really, in this digital age.
Allen then adds: "It's going to be a problem for quite a time until we move forward and hopefully get a better digital system in place and can make it work a bit better, but until then, we've got to put up with all this paperwork and lorries arriving in Ireland with box files full of paper".

In actuality, though, Allen could not be more wrong. The original system goes back to Directive 64/433/EEC, one of the Commission's very first forays into food safety, and one which I remember well. It remained in force until 31 December 2005, when the food safety procedures were replaced by Directive 2004/41/EC.

As to the export procedures, though, the system has been augmented with TRACES, the Union's TRAde Control and Export System, and fully compatible with the EU's electronic customs systems, as part of the development of the "Single Window Project".

Allen's people, therefore, may have familiarity issues and a steep learning curve, but the system is as good as it gets, linking in with the Union Customs Code, which itself has only recently been updated and is still in the process of further updates.

The problems, therefore, are not the "paperwork" of the "red tape", terms to which idle hacks like Simon Jack are prone to resort. The real issues more complex and more far reaching.

In the first instance – as I've pointed out several times now – UK traders have to get used to a fundamental change in their status as a result of the UK leaving the Single Market. No longer can they export on their own accounts, loading goods in trucks and shipping them to their destinations for sale – the process known technically as placing in "free circulation".

Instead, an importer must be found, a "legal entity" (either a person or company) established in the EU, who must notify the veterinary authorities of impending consignments, and then (separately) make the necessary customs declarations. The UK trader, as the exporter, loses control of the process.

The agony starts long before the products are despatched from their points of origin, with each separate consignment having to be furnished with veterinary heath certificates, with all the products shipped bearing official "establishment numbers", which must be visible on labelling.

The loads must them be routed via the Border Control Posts, at the ports of entry, where there are three levels of checks. The first is of the documentation, the second is the "identity check", which means physically reconciling container or vehicle contents with the manifest. This can even require the opening of packaging and carrying out tests to confirm the products are as described.

The third level is the physical inspections of the meat, the standard levels being set at 20 percent of each load, although this may be increased at the discretion of the inspector. Supplementary checks may also be carried out, such as sampling for pesticide or veterinary medicine residues, or testing for the presence of microbial contaminants or parasites.

Only once these procedures are completed and the goods have been passed as satisfactory – and the inspection fees have been paid – can consignments be released to customs, for their clearance.

Paperwork apart, it is these procedures which are taking the time, with the formalities adding a day or more to delivery times, and injecting a huge level of uncertainty - and the extra costs which must be paid by the importers.

Understandably – as pointed out in Jack's report – buyers are losing patience and are looking for other solutions – sourcing from suppliers within the EU. These are not "teething troubles", and they will not "bed in" with time. The "official controls" process is inherent in the UK's change in status from EU member to a third country.

Traders will have to learn to live with "significant additional disruption", but also with the reality that their customers don't have to. They can go elsewhere and, from all the indications, that is precisely what they will do.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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