Richard North, 25/07/2021  

The Daily Mail's intervention in the Northern Ireland Protocol debate was certainly timely, right down to the typically lurid headline:
The EU food fiasco: 720 pages of red tape, Pettifogging rules and how the wrong colour ink can condemn a lorry of food... all captured in one delivery of M&S curry to Ireland, writes HARRY WALLOP
The piece starts with Archie Norman, the chairman of Marks & Spencer, who this week issued a cri de Coeur on behalf of British retailers who export products from the mainland to Ireland.

The backdrop the "wet" border between the Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which means that businesses such M&S "face a nightmare of red tape when they make landfall in Northern Ireland" – currently with goods destined for Ireland and, supposedly after 30 September when the "grace period ends, with goods destined for Northern Ireland.

Be that as it may, despite five years into the Brexit process, Norman still hasn't quite got the hang of things. "It's not the rules of the Customs Union that are the problem, it is the Byzantine and pointless and pettifogging enforcement" he says.

The only correct statement there – unwittingly – is: "It's not the rules of the Customs Union that are the problem". Indeed, these rules are not the problem. The Customs Union is an irrelevance to Norman's business. His people have to deal with the "official controls", which are part of the Single Market.

Then, while he might attribute the difficulties to "Byzantine and pointless and pettifogging enforcement" – which mean that "no less than 40 percent of M&S's consignments to Ireland face a delay of between six and 48 hours" – the real issue is both the rules and their enforcement. The two are inextricably linked.

One might think that the chairman of a former FTSE 100 company – and still in the FTSE 250 – might actually know what he's talking about. But then, we're used to the inverted pyramid of knowledge: the higher they go, the less they know.

Anyhow, Harry Wallop, for the Mail charts the progress of a "disastrous delivery journey" of a consignment of chicken tikka masala ready meals, from a factory in Wales. It was intended for an M&S store in Dublin, but first had to travel to Motherwell Export Centre, where five veterinarians are employed to process the Export Health Certificates (EHCs) which will permit the product entry into Ireland.

All goes well until the consignment reaches Northern Ireland, when the inspector notices that the vet who had signed the EHC for the chicken tikka masala had used a black biro on a form printed in back, despite the small print at the bottom of the certificate stating: "The colour of the signature shall be different to the colour of the printing".

Although M&S say that though "wrong ink" incidents are very unusual (everyone has been vigilant on pen colours since), we do seem to have had a spate of incidents where these gifted vets have had trouble with their coloured crayons.

Perhaps one of the reasons might be linked to the shortage of official veterinarians, and the need to employ foreign vets. But so acute is this shortage that the UK government has asked the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons council to approve plans to reduce English language requirements for some immigrant vets (from International English Language Testing System Level 7 to Level 5). The council cravenly acceded to this request.

Thus, we have the absurd situation where these vets are being asked sign a lengthy and complex public health attestation on the EHC, written in a language that they poorly understand, where there are as many as 32 fields to be verified, taking as long as three hours to complete. When they cannot even use the right crayons, one has little expectation of their attestations having any meaning.

In reality, the whole exercise is a charade. The hapless vets are supposed to attest that the products they are signing for have been produced in accordance with all the relevant EU regulations and that they have come from an establishment implementing a HACCP programme which has been regularly audited by the competent authority – not frequently, mind you, but regularly. One presumes that the fifth year of every century would suffice.

In addition to that, the vets have to attest that the products fulfil guarantees relating to the residue plans submitted by the competent authority to the Commission, and have been produced under conditions guaranteeing compliance with the maximum levels of pesticides, and the maximum levels for contaminants laid down in EU law.

Yet this is information that neither vets nor anyone else for that matter, some 270 miles from the processing site, can possibly know. They can only take the word of the multiple food operators in the production chain, and will have absolutely no means of ascertaining whether they are being correctly advised. In fact, one would expect their informants to confirm that the products complied in every possible respect, even if they didn't – not that they would even know.

Thus, while we have the bedwetters shrieking with horror at the suggestion that this charade should be dispensed with, there should be a recognition that this form-filling exercise is a complete waste of time and effort, and an expensive one at that.

But, if employing expensive officials, to make meaningless declarations before a product can be dispatched, is a valueless exercise, what price the inspection of the product once it arrives at the border – wherever that might be?

As a food inspector, I once had a colleague who had a "thing" about M&S, resenting what he thought was their smug reputation for perfection. This is a company that employed more specialist health inspectors than the largest authority in England, and honed food safety to a level approaching paranoia. Nevertheless, my colleague in the time I knew him devoted every effort to trying to prosecute M&S for a food safety infraction. He never succeeded.

On this basis, the chance of finding anything wrong during a routine inspection at a border control post is vanishingly small. Applying risk assessment principles, one would not even try. To do so is a waste of resource – more so, when the process of unloading a vehicle and handling the food itself creates marginal but completely avoidable risks.

This farcical process might not be so bad if vets were freely available and could contribute to the safety of the foods, but neither apply. There are multiple reports of vet shortages throughout Europe, recently and longer-term. Furthermore. This is a problem that applies globally.

There are also reports on recruitment difficulties, not only of veterinarians but of their "assistants" who actually do most of the work. But what is rarely acknowledged is the reluctance of food safety professionals to work in a subordinate role to veterinarians who are most often poorly equipped to carry out enforcement work.

But our problems do not stop there. When we have the likes of Archie Norman, with all the prestige that his post conveys, together with government officials and politicians, who have little understanding of the true bankruptcy of the EU's system, there will be little immediate pressure for improvement.

Mere trimming at the edges, though, is hardly a solution. The whole system needs a fundamental re-think, which is not likely to come from the dirigiste, rule-bound European Union, which has a habit of layering complexity on complexity.

However, the difficulties being encountered – which will multiply once the UK starts to impose import checks in October – could very well be the catalyst for change. The more we hear of foreign vets with their coloured crayons, looking up the backsides of chicken tikka masala ready meals, telling us in broken English whether they are fit to eat, the less likely it is that this absurd system will survive.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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