Richard North, 24/07/2021  

On 12 March of this year, the online newspaper iNews published an article headed: "Cadbury and McVitie's exports to EU will need 'to be signed off by vets' under new rules on food safety". Illustrated by a picture of chocolate digestives with the caption: "Biscuits could be affected".

The story, like so many in the legacy media on the technical aspects of EU regulation, was what might be described as total bollocks. It was based on a copy-out of an article in the Financial Times a couple of days earlier, which was of similar merit – as I explained in my own piece.

Both (and other) legacy media reports, in fact, had completely misunderstood the application of a new law, Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2012/630, the name of which rather gave the game away. It exempted certain categories of goods (such as chocolate digestives) from official controls at border control posts, and thereby released exporters from any requirement to secure veterinary certification – the exact opposite of what the papers were asserting.

But what was particularly dispiriting about the iNews report was the complete absence of any sense of outrage at the idea of qualified veterinary surgeons being employed to inspect and certify chocolate digestives. Instead, it recorded that "MPs have already highlighted a shortage of vets to carry out the additional work".

For the record, MPs had not always been so supine. In a Commons debate on 2 November 1976 on the veterinary inspection of slaughtered poultry, Liberal MP David Penhaligon concluded that "the nation could not afford to use people with six or seven years' university training to look up the backside of chickens to see whether they were edible".

Clearly, MPs were made of sterner stuff in those days, as none currently seemed to have demurred at the prospect of graduate vets peering up the backsides of digestive biscuits, to confirm to the EU that they were fit to eat – not withstanding that there was no such requirement.

Alarmingly, not only did MPs seem to be at ease with the idea, Defra was also cited by iNews, stating that it would provide support for businesses to adjust to new trading arrangements and had taken steps to increase vet capacity, then adding: "We encourage the EU to act pragmatically as part of our new trading relationship".

Yet. for all that, this was precisely an example of the EU acting pragmatically, having concluded that certain shelf-stable composite products "pose the lowest risk as regards animal health and microbiological food safety", and therefore could be exempted from the full rigour of "official controls at the border control posts".

It was this that passed my mind when I first skimmed through the Command Paper on the Northern Ireland Protocol, when I noted that the UK government was proposing the application of "risk-based and intelligence-led controls" on SPS consignments as they move into Northern Ireland.

Unfortunately, as I pointed out yesterday, the government was proposing that there should be no need for certificates and checks for individual items that are only ever intended to be consumed in Northern Ireland, a proposal which the EU is hardly likely to accept, not least because it is almost impossible to prevent leakage of goods across the Irish border.

On the other hand, had the government stuck to its point about "risk-based and intelligence-led controls" on SPS consignments – regardless of intended destination – it might have had a much stronger point, and one that could have a possibility of securing much-needed changes to the EU's entire SPS regime.

The first point the government could make is that risk assessment is notably absent from the most of the SPS "official controls" regime, and in particular the sanitary regime as it concerns products of animal origin. Inspection frequencies – with very rare exceptions – are set in stone, at 20 or 30 percent of consignments (depending on their type). No discretion is allowed to officials to reduce inspection rates (although they can increase them).

And yet, with the introduction of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) regime into mainstream EU food safety law since 2004, risk assessment, on the basis of self-certification, is central to the implementation of EU food law. Risk assessment is also, incidentally, written into the Union Customs Code, where the inspection rates for non-SPS goods are determined by customs officials on the spot.

The second point to make is that the insistence on requiring veterinary certification for foodstuffs is not only an absurd waste of resource, and unnecessarily expensive, it is also increasingly impractical, owing to a Europe-wide shortage of vets willing (and able) to do the work.

In the UK, this has already been pointed out, and recently so in the Telegraph which headlined a piece: "Young vets 'only interested in treating cats and dogs, not farm animals'", with the sub-heading: "Farmers warn that attitude is adding to existing problem of national shortage of vets".

What applies to farm animals also applies – in spades – to veterinary certification and (especially) slaughterhouse practice, where so few UK-trained vets are prepared to do the work that we have been reliant on imported foreign vets – many with poor language skills and next to no enforcement experience.

But, while this has been a temporary (and wholly inadequate) gap-filler, this report demonstrates that the shift in the aspirations and expectations of veterinarians is affecting many European nations. The veterinary shortage isn't going to go away.

Part of the solution here could be in following the lead set by the UK which has been ahead of the field in creating a food safety specialism with its own dedicated professionals, instead of bolting-on a food safety module onto the veterinary syllabus. There is a far greater pool of perfectly capable recruits in the food safety field than can be drawn from the veterinary profession.

But the best solution of all might be to dispense entirely with official (veterinary or other) certification and border inspection, using the EU's own risk-based procedures, set out in Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2012/630, as augmented by Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2020/2235.

Here, the onus shifts to food importers, within the EU. Any food imported must be accompanied by a "private attestation", setting out full traceability details and a declaration by the importer that it conforms with relevant EU laws. An adaptation of this form and system would do much to ease the flow of SPS goods into Northern Ireland, as only goods entering the EU would require certification.

Control though, does no stop there. Although foods might be exempted from border controls, under the 2012/630 regime, the competent authorities of each member state have to perform official controls "regularly, on a risk basis and with appropriate frequency, at the place of destination, at the point of release for free circulation in the Union, or at the warehouses or the premises of the operator responsible for the consignment".

Given that all food for human consumption is already subject to stringent controls at the point of production, there is very little to be gained from rote border inspections, while official certification adds nothing to the safety of the food. Targeted, risk-based controls are definitely the way forward.

Where the UK is going wrong, I think, is in suggesting a different regime for goods intended for onwards export to the EU. A far bolder and potentially rewarding step is to take the EU's own procedures and apply modern thinking to them.

Official certification (and especially veterinary certification) and border inspections are a 20th Century anachronism. The EU should be invited to join the 21st Century and abolish them completely.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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