Brexit: no room to deregulate

20/02/2018  


From an historical perspective, the news of meat suppliers Russell Hume going into liquidation is of some interest, not least because one of the more prominent reports of the event is carried by the Guardian.

It was this newspaper which, back in the late 1980s, led the campaign for the uniform application of the supposedly more rigorous "European" meat hygiene standards. This was at a time when, before the advent of the Single Market, only operations which exported to EC countries were required to meet European standards.

Eventually, the Guardian was to get its way, following the promulgation of Council Directive 91/497/EEC. The effect on the meat industry was devastating, with the loss of over 1,400 small/medium slaughterhouses and cutting premises.

The introduction of European law, however, meant more than just a change of ownership of the legal code. It forced the replacement of the traditional UK system of food safety monitoring and enforcement. This stretched back to 1848, based on local government Medical Officers of Health and their field assistants, then called sanitary inspectors – the forerunners of today's environmental health officers.

Instead, we got slaughterhouses supervised by full-time "official veterinarians", leading to a centralised enforcement operation called the Meat Hygiene Services (MHS). This was established in 1995 and finally absorbed into the Food Standards Agency in 2010 as a fully national operation.

In accordance with EU law, the vastly more expensive system of veterinary supervision had to be paid-for by the meat industry and, with veterinary fees costing individual slaughterhouses tens of thousands of pounds a year, the pressure was on to reduce costs.

Enterprising contractors, supplying the MHS with vets, started to recruit cut-price vets, initially from Spain. Mostly, they were newly qualified, with limited English language skills and no enforcement experience in British slaughterhouses. The system was, and is, a travesty. Not least, detached from the local authority enforcement infrastructure, it lost vital local intelligence on how the trade was functioning, where the cheats were and who was cutting corners.

To some, in the wake of the BSE crisis, this was the price worth paying. And, as the law transmuted into Regulation (EC) No 853/2004, we were supposed to be entering a European nirvana where consumer protection was elevated to an all-time high, leaving all our food safety troubles behind us.

Yet, it was this same legislation and European system of hygiene control which gave us the horsemeat scandal, when the lid was lifted on food fraud as a major and largely unchecked element in the food industry.

Now we have this latest blemish on our story of European perfection. The system that the Guardian so much wanted as the antidote to food scares has now brought us Russell Hume, the closure and liquidation of a major meat supplier, allegedly for instances of serious non-compliance with food hygiene regulations.

How this was supposed to happen when the premises are approved by official veterinarians and under constant supervision is not explained. Clearly, the system – which is supposed to pre-empt problems – is not working.

Altogether, "Europe" has been a disaster for the UK meat sector and if anyone should be celebrating Brexit, it is the thousands of people robbed of a living by EU rules which, after all the trauma, have not delivered on their promise.

Despite that, we now see the Efra committee complaining that "non-British EU veterinary surgeons are critical to the UK veterinary workforce". This is our friend Mr Neil Parish who, when I first met him in as an MEP in Brussels, was one of those Conservative politicians who was eager to condemn European interference in our food control system.

Clearly having forgotten those days, his committee now calls for the government to "set out how it intends to ensure working rights for non-British EU vets currently working in the UK and to support the veterinary workforce going forward to ensure that it can meet the needs of the UK’s food industry in the future".

The original system of local authority control under the aegis of environmental health officers is now so far in the past, it seems, that very few people even realise that the current system is wholly an EEC import. Certainly, no one is calling for the restoration of the previous system.

The trouble is that what is left of the industry has been so heavily restructured that it is entirely dependent on the Single Market, freely importing and exporting product to meet demand, so much so that the entire industry has become Europeanised. That much became evident in the horsemeat crisis, where the international nature of the trade became highly visible.

In short, there is no going back – not in the short-term. We are committed to a European system of food control (which itself has transformed itself since the Sixties), just as the industry is now reliant on free access to the European market. Sudden change would be devastating.

And, for better or worse, no one sensible will dispute that such controls are necessary, imperfect though they are. A small indicator of the need for them comes in a report picked up from New Zealand by the BBC.

It tells us of how he discovery of hundreds of brown marmorated "stink bugs" aboard cargo ships bringing some 12,000 cars from Japan to New Zealand mean that the car carriers are being turned away to be fumigated. Apparently, there is no facility in New Zealand which can deal with the pest, so at least three of the ships are "floating aimlessly in the Pacific".

According to the BBC report, the stink bug, which is native to areas of East Asia but can also be found in Europe and the Americas, is a problem for fruit farmers around the world. The beetle voraciously sucks the liquid out of fruits and its toxins cause the plants to die. They have the potential to cause major damage to New Zealand's entire fruit and vegetable industry.

The agricultural sector is a crucial part of New Zealand's economy, worth £20 billion in the year ending June 2017. Strict biosecurity laws implemented by the Ministry of Primary Industries exist to prevent any kind of pest from entering the country, as pests introduced by man are one of its major threats.

Here, there is an added complication that the fumigant often used against the stink bug - methyl bromide - damages car upholstery to the point that they are unsalable. An alternative, sulfuryl fluoride, is not approved in New Zealand, but the Ministry is now considering its use.

This is a classic example of the need for border controls to prevent disease and the spread of pests (with the two often closely related). Like it or not, as we're seeing with the meat industry, we will have to keep these controls in place, known as sanitary and phytosanitary controls – even after Brexit.

Not only do we need them to protect our indigenous industries, our ability to export to Europe and worldwide depends on us keeping them in place. There is no scope for deregulation and, if we adopt US standards, that will automatically exclude us from the European market and those countries which adopt or shadow EU standards.

The ironic thing for me personally is that it was the imposition of the European system of food control which brought me into the fray as a fully-fledged Eurosceptic. I maintained then, back in the late 60s, that it was a substandard system, and my view hasn't changed – even with the so-called improvements.

Sadly, international trade depends not only on the application of standards, but on the acceptance of systems that were acceptable to all parties. The UK system, although better in my view, was almost unique (only a few countries in the world adopting it), to the extent that we were out of step with the global as well as the European system.

As long as we were a net importer of meat, with very little exported, that didn't matter very much, but globalisation has forced the change. We now export meat products to Europe and all over the world. With global trade comes global standards – largely based on the European model (even in the US, which also uses vets to inspect meat).

On the other hand, the extraordinary situation where some 700 branches of Kentucky Fried Chicken have had to close because of a failure in the distribution system illustrates the fragility of modern supply chains. Very little disruption can have a dramatic effect.

This puts the "deregulators" and the "free trade" purists in a fantasy world of their own making. There is no way we can dismantle the food safety controls that are in place, or start messing with them and not expect serious consequences.

Furthermore, with the trend towards global harmonisation of standards, mutual recognition isn't on the agenda. Experience tells us that dual standards are not a realistic proposition. So if you want to export, and the price is regulatory conformity, that must also extend to domestic production.

A little of this seems to have percolated into the collective brain of the UK government - but only a little. In his "Road to Brexit" speech to be delivered in Vienna, David Davis is to ask the EU to trust Britain not to turn into a "Mad Max-style world" of no rules after Brexit. Foolishly, though, Davis is expecting a regime of mutual recognition to apply, which isn't going to happen – on which subject I will have to return.

In the meantime, though, it looks as if we are to continue to see useless vets in our slaughterhouses for some time to come. Even though we won the war, this is a battle we have lost.



Richard North 20/02/2018 link

Brexit: will business pull the plug?

14/11/2017  


Yesterday was a watershed, possibly. It may not be obvious. It may even be counter-intuitive. But, with David Davis promising MPs that they could have a vote on the final Brexit agreement was, in my mind, Parliament's redundancy notice. As far as Brexit goes, MPs have written themselves out of the script.

As it stands, the Brexit talks are poised on the edge of collapse. Within two weeks, we are looking at a failure to progress beyond phase one, which effectively means that the chances of an agreement are looking remoter by the day.

Yes, the MPs seem to be concerned about is whether they're going to get a vote on a deal sometime next year, a deal that may not – and most likely will not – happen at all. And if it does, they won't be able to vote against it or we end up with no deal, exactly the outcome that looks like it's going to happen anyway.

Basically, therefore, what MPs say and do between now and Brexit is largely irrelevant, which is just as well. Barring a vanishingly small number who are beginning to get to grips with the issues, they are so far behind the curve, or so besotted with their own agendas, that they have nothing useful to offer.

Far more important then was yesterday's meeting between Mrs May and a group of business leaders. Reported by Reuters, this was supposedly an occasion when a number of CEOs told the Prime Minister that she needed to speed up Brexit negotiations, "amid concern Britain will crash out the world’s biggest trading bloc without a deal".

In fact, the real value of the meeting was, most probably, in the opportunity it gave for the leaders of 15 business groups from Britain and continental Europe (pictured) to meet somebody who knew even less about Brexit than they did. With luck, they've been shocked into the realisation that they are on their own. No salvation is going to come from No 10.

And, after drawing attention to the lack of awareness in the business community, yesterday we got another example – not of total ignorance but a distorted view of what might transpire.

This came from Gabriel D'Arcy, the chief executive of LacPatrick in Strabane in Northern Ireland, one of the UK’s largest dairy producers, courtesy of The Guardian, who warns that food prices "would soar" after no-deal Brexit.

The thesis is not unfamiliar to blog readers, with D'Arcy predicting that a badly handled Brexit could lead to price hikes for food, and scarcity in the shops from April 2019, with dairy and meat products particularly hit. Something which the Downing Street Fifteen would also have found, he also complained that "ministers were too focused on financial services" and were putting the country's food security and food standards at risk.

"The impression in the industry", says D'Arcy, "is we are not relevant or sufficiently relevant to get a strong hearing in the negotiations". He then adds something that is certainly bothering the fishing industry as he says, "The risk is we are a chip that will be traded".

That, the man avers, "might be fine for England and Wales but not here in Northern Ireland", accusing Whitehall of being "fixated" with financial services and "not that bothered about food".

D'Arcy nevertheless professes to be happy for Britain to leave the customs union and single market, but not until someone in government "articulates the vision in detail and with examples, and explains, with concrete examples, why it is better than the current regime". He will have a long wait.

What then gets a little dubious is D'Arcy's claims that leaving the customs union in a "hard Brexit" scenario could lead to the price of meat doubling and the price of dairy, half of which is imported, rising by up to 50 percent.

A block of cheddar imported from Ireland that currently costs £1, he says, will cost £1.41 under WTO rules. With Ireland being a major producer of cheddar, he argues that this would prompt "a vicious economic cycle" and a period of "runaway" food price hikes.

Actually, reference to the current EU tariff rate puts Cheddar at €171.70 per 100kg. And, with the average price of the cheese at £733 per 100kg, £1-worth of cheese (not a large amount) would actually cost around £1.17 (depending on the exchange rate).

Nonetheless, this is a significant increase, although some other products attract no tariffs at all, while others are higher. Then, as regards Cheddar, although the Irish Republic would have problems, the UK would benefit from substantially lower tariffs arising from New Zealand and Australian quotas – the bulk of which the UK would keep.

In other words, there is an amount of special pleading going on here. The actual increased cost to the UK consumer will average out at a relatively low figure – even assuming that we do not go for the unilateral tariff-free option.

As regards milk sales, D'Arcy says that, with production plants on both sides of the border he can segregate his business in a Brexit apartheid, with northern non-EU milk staying north of the border and milk from across the border staying in the Republic of Ireland. However, he worries about the livelihoods of the 1,000 farmers he supports in Northern Ireland as "87 percent of their income presently comes from the EU".

Even that, though, is not that drastic when the current tariff for whole milk is €21.80 per 100kg - although that would be enough to make the liquid product uncompetitive, adding 21p to a litre. Even that, though, is not necessarily significant. Retail prices for whole milk range from a 65p/litre to over £1, so the cost of duty could be absorbed. Furthermore, skimmed milk costs more although duty is less, based on fat content.

With the picture very different from what D'Arcy is telling us, he still claims that, "Tariffs for food are going to be at prohibitive levels so that's going to drive the price of food up, and then it will probably give rise to another government intervention to dampen down food price inflation, which obviously will be very destabilising and that's not what the British voted for when they voted for Brexit".

Tellingly, though, D'Arcy does not mention non-tariff barriers. He does not mention that products of animal origin must be presented to Border Inspection Posts (BIPs) when they are imported into the EU (with similar provisions likely when food is exported from the EU to the UK after Brexit).

He says nothing about the fact that the UK cannot even export food to the EU until it gets country clearance – which could take months – or that the BIPs could take years to provide.

These, in fact, will be the real barriers to trade, and they will exist with or without a deal. Even if we manage to negotiate a tariff-free trade agreement with the EU, we will still be a "third country" and food products will still be subject of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks. On Brexit, these barriers will be so formidable that it is hard to imagine that there can be any trade at all.

With somewhat more validity, though, D'Arcy raises the issue of opening up the UK market to US imports to keep prices down if EU tariffs rose. "That would certainly give rise to a massive incentive to open the market to American hormone-impregnated beef and chlorinated chicken and food from the cheapest parts of the world", he says. "That will be the way to avoid food price inflation but that will be at some cost".

The deal here, though, will be the relatively low production cost – although these do fluctuate, and US advantage is not always as high as is imagined. However, D'Arcy warns that if the gates were opened to the cheapest suppliers in the world, the country would open the door to disease, fraud along the lines of the horsemeat scandal and threats to the country's food security.

It's a bit rich pinning the horsemeat scandal on cheap food, when that was very much of EU origin, affecting high-priced prepared meals. The more relevant point is that, if food from the US was admitted to the UK, the EU would either refuse to accept UK exports or impose such stringent border checks that it would make trade impossible. The price of "cheap" food from the US, therefore, would be the loss of our EU export trade (if we ever got it back), currently worth about £20 billion annually.

What is coming from D'Arcy, therefore, is wide of the mark. He has a point, but his focus is misplaced and he misses the real threats. Nonetheless, even if for the wrong reasons, there is merit in his claims when he says: "We are putting the domestic food industry at risk, we are putting food standards and safety at risk, and putting a massive amount of jobs and the viability of the rural economy at risk".

D'Arcy, who is being somewhat more forthright than many in the industry, says he felt compelled to speak out because he felt so angry at "this the eleventh hour" that there is no government in Northern Ireland to give farming a voice and no one in Westminster with a vision of Brexit.

"No one is banging the desks in Whitehall" to explain the dangers of a hard Brexit, not just to the farmer but to the consumer, he says. "The impression is in the [food] industry we are not relevant or sufficiently relevant to get a strong hearing in the negotiations".

And on that, not only is he right – he is massively under-stating the problems. But then, he is also under-stating the problems of a negotiated settlement. He, like most of the business community, has yet to come to terms with the consequences of the UK leaving the Single Market and acquiring "third country" status.

The level of ignorance here is bizarre, where even the worst case scenarios from industry don't actually approach reality. And when the politicians are further discounting the problems, we end up in cloud-cuckoo land – where we currently reside.

Then, that is without looking at the broader issues arising from a "hard border" with Ireland, where the pressure from Dublin is quite capable of collapsing the Brexit talks.

That brings us back full circle. While the MPs in Westminster obsess about their final vote, as each day passes, a deal looks more and more remote. By the time our politician wake up to this peril, it will be far too late, and many will never have seen it coming.

And there, business is truly on its own. If that was the message they took from Downing Street, it cannot be long before they draw their own conclusions and take the necessary measures, further reinforcing the irrelevance of Westminster. It may be business, rather than politics, that pulls the plug on Mrs May's version of Brexit.



Richard North 14/11/2017 link

Brexit: still failing to catch up

30/10/2017  


It is difficult to find the exact point at which I started pointing out the problems that might arise after Brexit as a result of inadequate customs facilities on the other side of the Channel.

However, it is certainly the case that I was in full flow September 2016 - over a year ago. Then, I was writing that France "as we know" has limited infrastructure to deal with the extra customs requirements arising out of Brexit. And European officials, I said, "admit they are only just beginning to understand the scale of the Brexit challenge".

Earlier this week, we then had Sir Ivan Rogers warn that the crucial issue in post-Brexit trade with the EU was, in his words, " What's the other side of the Channel going to do?" Now, trailing our wake comes the Financial Times, self-importantly telling us that it has carried out "an analysis", telling us that "Britain's EU trade partners are lagging behind on preparing for a possible hard Brexit".

Under the headline, "Customs teams in EU27 unprepared for hard Brexit", we are informed that some member states are likely to have no extra customs inspectors in place for at least a year after Brexit. Finally recognising the point we've been making for so long, the paper is at last reporting that "Britain’s preparations rely on the EU27 also being ready", and that "there are few signs that some leading trading partners are implementing contingency plans".

In some continental administrations, such as Germany, it actually takes three years to train customs officials, so it is already too late to meet increased demand by the end of March 2019, and even France's two-year programme means that those who applied in this year’s recruitment round for the next course in 2018 will not start to enter service until mid-2020.

So far, the intentions of cross-Channel authorities on increasing staff levels have not been declared, leading the FT to hazard a guess that one reason for any delays is "uncertainty over the final shape of Brexit amid fractious negotiations between London and Brussels".

It cites a spokesman for the FNV, the Dutch trade union federation, who says the government "know they may need more people, but they don't know how many until the final deal is clear". A Swedish official said: "I think we will first have to wait and see what the Brexit negotiations lead to".

What the Financial Times and the continental authorities don't seem to have realised, though, is that commercial shipping staff do the brunt of the work in customs processing. They too will need to recruit and train extra staff, with the appropriate facilities provided. This may well be as big a problem as that confronting the private sector.

And then, there is the minor issue that the staffing problem arises regardless of whether we have a deal or not. The moment Mrs May decided that the UK was going to leave the Single Market and become a third country, there were going to be border checks, and such remains the case to this day.

Some relief could come with an agreement on interim measures, where the application of the EU acquis is extended past 2019. But that will only delay the inevitable for two years or so, which would seem to suggest that action must still be taken more or less immediately for some countries.

The situation gets worse, of course, when one takes into account the "official controls" which require products of animal origin to be submitted to Border Inspection Posts (BIP), and most other foods to Designated Points of Entry (DPE) – a provision also applying to live plants, some materials of plant origin, plus timber and some wood products.

While it may take up to three years to recruit and train customs officials, it might take five years or more to provide BIP and DPE facilities, which are in addition to the customs requirement. And it will take as long to recruit and train the necessary professional staff.

By coincidence, a report produced by the European Parliament this month brings up the critical shortfall in infrastructure, observing that "there is very limited capacity to handle all of the additional inspections that would be required if trade between the UK and the EU27 also had to be inspected". For example, it says, "neither Calais nor Coquelles, the two main points of entry into France, has a Border Inspection Post for animal products".

The report is written by Alan Matthews, Professor Emeritus of European Agricultural Policy at Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland. Yet, it would seem, these strong academic credentials do not prevent Matthews repeating an error perpetrated by Legatum and others, to the effect that official controls can under certain circumstances be waived. They can't.

In this case, Matthews seems to be relying on the precedent set by the EU concluding "equivalence" agreements with New Zealand and Canada, where food imports from these countries are subject to a lower frequency of physical checks. It is assumed that, because UK and EU sanitary and phytosanitary are currently aligned, regulatory checks at borders could avoided, thereby facilitating the trade in goods and removing the need for inspection posts and their specialist staff.

However, it should be noted that, while the agreements with New Zealand and Canada reduce the frequency of inspections, they do not eliminate them entirely nor remove the requirement for consignments to be presented to BIP/DPE for documentation checks and such physical checks as are required.

Currently, the official requirements specify 100 percent documentation checks while fresh meat, fish products, whole eggs and certain other products require a 20 percent physical inspection rate. For poultry meat and poultry meat products, milk and milk products, egg products and certain other products – including, for some strange reason, honey (or perhaps not) – the inspection rate increases to 50 percent. One out of every two consignments must be inspected.

It should be appreciated that the documentary checks include "identity checks", 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 - detecting horsemeat labelled as beef, for instance. 

Nevertheless, the concessions made to New Zealand are substantial. Although 100 percent checks are still required, in most cases the physical inspection rate drops to two percent, and in some cases it is down to one. However, as can be seen from the copious documentation (here, here, here and here), this is no free pass. In fact, the "high purity" regimes adopted in the country's abattoirs are so stringent that no more than a handful of UK abattoirs (if that many) could meet the standard.

In these circumstances, probably the best that could be achieved would be an equivalence along lines similar to that of Canada, where inspection rates drop to between 10 and 15 percent for most products. And that is on the basis of conformity with a 62-page technical agreement plus amendments.

So detailed are the technical requirements that – as the Matthews report correctly points out – it affords little policy or regulatory autonomy to the UK. Dreams of deregulation will be precisely that. To all intents and purposes, the UK food industry will have to maintain full EU regulatory requirements, just to achieve the marginal concessions to the level afforded to Canada.

This, of course, will be the best-case scenario assuming a negotiated settlement and recognition of the UK as an approved exporter. Oddly, in the worst case scenario where there is "no deal", after the immediate chaos has died down there will be nothing for officials to do. UK export of animals and foods of animal origin to the EU (including Ireland) will not be permitted.

And what this points to is that the newspapers and even the so-called experts – to say nothing of the politicians – are still failing to catch up.

In fact, so far behind the curve is much of the media that we get stories such as this from Sky News, with presenter Niall Peterson writing that: "The Port of Dover is something of a gift for lazy journalists looking to do a report on the progress towards Brexit (or lack thereof)", and then proceeds to demonstrate his almost total lack of grip of the subject.

But it is perhaps unfair to single out the media. None of these groups are beginning to come to terms with the implications of Brexit and, in particular, of the consequences of leaving the Single Market. The whole debate is so driven by ignorance that reality is going to come as a huge shock.

It is becoming clear that Davis and his crew are convinced that "equivalence" is a free pass, allowing UK produce to be exempted from border controls. They think this will be conceded to the UK as part of the "deep and special partnership" simply on the basis that we currently comply with the EU regime.

They do not understand that, in the Single Market, the EU (Commission and ECJ) have direct jurisdiction over enforcement and can intervene directly to direct enforcement activity in the event of default. It is that process, in addition to regulatory conformity, which gives Member States their free passes at the borders.

But when we leave the Regulatory Union (aka Single Market), all that gets kicked into touch. Thus, there is no way the EU is going to allow access to its markets without border inspection, otherwise the UK would be exporting to the EU under less stringent conditions than intra-Union trade undertaken by Member States.

Right from the earliest days of Brexit, though, the Union has made it abundantly clear that the UK cannot have a better deal outside the EU than in. Concessions on border inspection, are not on the agenda. The doctrine of "equal misery" will prevail, where UK exporters will have to to additional controls to make up for those they relinquish when the UK leaves the EU.

This simple principle seems constantly to evade Davis and his advisers, to the extent that they are blundering in the dark - the media and the "experts" with them. In the next few years, there are going to be some very expensive lessons learned about how the European Union really works.



Richard North 30/10/2017 link

Brexit: horsing around

01/02/2017  


One likes to think that somewhere, even if buried deep in the bowels of a Commission building in Brussels, there is some who understands fully how the EU's trade system for animals and products of animal origins actually works.

I have a horrible feeling though that such a person does not exist. The sort of thing one finds is rigid specialisation and compartmentalisation – where no one person in the system has any knowledge of how the other parts work.

This is very much Kafka territory, illustrated when I once spent four hours on a train from Brussels to Strasbourg in the company of a Commission official. An Englishmen by birth, he had graduated in Madrid with a degree in medieval Spanish literature.

Finding employment opportunities in his calling somewhat limited, he had been attracted by the idea of working for the European Commission and, having to his surprise passed the entry examinations, found himself working for DG Sanco.

What I asked him what he did for a living, he told me: "the beef labelling regulations". Unwittingly, he had perhaps found the one man in Europe who could look him in the eye and say: "that's interesting", and actually mean it. But I then said: "what else do you do?", to which he replied: "the beef labelling regulations". That was all he did.

We see a similar degree of specialisation in the British Civil Service, certainly within the technical levels. In the administrative grades, however – where a first class honours degree in the arts from Oxford is the gateway to success - they specialise in ignorance, which is actively cultivated and honed to perfection.

This is mirrored in our politico-media class, who regard the holders of detailed knowledge with something akin to horror, giving rise to what Lost Leonardo describes as the "arrogance of ignorance". A perfect example of that comes with an article in the Spectator last July, a month after the referendum, when writer Robin Oakley was asked to pronounce on the effect of Brexit on horseracing.

The inconsequential fluff produced was an embarrassment, showing a worrying lack of appreciation of what could happen to what is an important industry worth £3.45 billion to the UK economy, employing (directly and indirectly) 85,000 people and underpinning a £12.6 billion gambling market.

As so often, it was left to a commenter to give some indication of what could await the industry, in this case Dan McCracken who asked whether the Cheltenham Festival would survive without the Irish horses, and whether they would have restrictions on their movement to a non-EU country. Losing the Irish, he wrote, "would decimate that racecourse into a non event".

This, in fact, very much hit the nail on the head. Horse racing has developed into a truly international industry and is reliant on the rapid movement of racehorses throughout the world, by road throughout Europe, and by air to more exotic locations, attracting the interest even of the popular media. The UK industry is particularly dependent on the free movement of animals between the mainland and Ireland.

It will comes as no surprise to our readers, though, to learn that this business is heavily regulated – from the ownership of horses, their movement and, in particular, their (temporary) export and return so that they can take part in foreign races.

Right up front, the crucial element of law is one which requires each horse to be furnished with its own individual passport. I recall Booker and myself making hay - to coin a phrase – with this provision and its bureaucratic absurdities. But, as the system has matured, it is widely supported by owners and industry generally, especially as by 2019, compulsory chipping will be introduced.

Currently, the requirement for horse "passports" is embodied in Commission Regulation (EC) No 504/2008, "implementing Council Directives 90/426/EEC and 90/427/EEC as regards methods for the identification of equidae", which is the latest version of the regulation, providing the foundation for much of the additional EU law.

Although, as a regulation, it takes direct effect, the UK government has chosen to give them an enforcement framework in the Horse Passport Regulations 2009, cross referring to Regulation 504/2008, which remains the executive instrument.

Undoubtedly, the UK Government will want to keep a similar system in place once we leave the EU, not least because it is a mandatory requirement for horses sold for human consumption (for which there is a substantial export trade with EU Member States), and to enable horses easily to be moved around the continent so that they can attend events, races and the like.

If, however, the Government is to rely on the Great Repeal Bill (once it has Royal Assent) to re-enact Regulation 504/2008, expecting – as Mrs May promises us – that: "The same rules and laws will apply on the day after Brexit as they did before", they are going to be a little disappointed.

What they will find is that Article 1 of the Regulation, which sets out its scope, states that it applies to horses (and other equidae) born in the Community or released for free circulation in the Community – i.e., imported in to the EU.

Here again, in a situation that is becoming wearily familiar, the UK can impose regulations on its own citizens, but it has no jurisdiction over the EU. Passports in the UK are issued by Passport Issuing Organisations (PIOs) but they rely for their authority of Council Directive 90/427/EEC on the zootechnical and genealogical conditions governing intra-Community trade in equidae. Repatriating the law will reimpose the system in the UK but passports issued here will no longer be recognised in the European Union. 

Nevertheless, it is not wrong to argue that repatriation of law – which served the Irish, the Indian and even the Polish nations once they regained independence – is a valid tool for the UK in managing Brexit. What this demonstrates, though, is that the process has its limitations.

The difficulty comes, as in this case, when the legislation is setting up a Community system. Here, we see the EU not just legislating for horses but laying down part of its Community Animal Health Policy. When the UK starts to re-establishing its own systems, therefore, it stands to reason that it must make its own laws to do that. It cannot simply download EU law and adopt it unchanged.

However, the crucial additional point in this particular instance is that the UK will need the EU to recognise its passports. No doubt this will be done on a mutual basis where we will also continue to recognise passports issued in the territories of EU Member States.

This, under ordinary circumstances, should not be difficult to achieve, given that we retain regulatory convergence on relevant animal health measures linked to the issue of passports. But it won't happen automatically. It is another item for the weary Article 50 negotiating team to add to its growing list, all to be agreed within a two year period.

Needless to say, Madam May in walkabout mode won't cut it. If the UK walks away without a deal, then the racing industry – and horse owners generally – will find it difficult to move their horses into the EU (or EEA). Horsemeat exports (and the export of live horses for slaughter) will no longer be possible.

But passports, of course, are only one hurdle. We are dealing with the EU here, so continuity is never going to be achieved by sorting out just one law. There are many more hurdles.

The next thing the racing industry is going to have to address is the 2014 Tripartite Agreement on Racehorses mandated by Council Directive 2009/156/EC on animal health conditions governing the movement and importation from third countries of equidae. This is an agreement between France, Ireland and the United Kingdom, originally established in the 1970s, in order to regulate the movement of race horses between the three countries without formal veterinary inspection taking place. It simplifies the process and reduces costs of moving horses between the three countries.

The problem here is that such an agreement can only be made between EU Member States derogating from EU law. On Brexit, this would fall unless a separate agreement was made within the Article 50 framework – yet another thing for the hard-worked negotiators to consider.

The greater problem then is that the UK, by leaving the EU, has assumed the "third country" status. Under EU law, this means an automatic ban on the export of horses. That is the EU's default position. For the UK to resume exports, it must satisfy the conditions set out in Council Directive 90 /426 /EEC on animal health conditions governing the movement and import from third countries of equidae. It must be approved by the Commission and then formally included on the list established by Commission Decision 2004/211/EC.

This is rather similar to the problems with the export of meat. Until the UK is on the list, all exports (including the temporary export of racehorses) will cease. As far as the European Commission is concerned, Brexit day is year zero.

Once again, the UK will be in a position of having to make a specific application to the Commission in order to be assessed for its suitability as an export country. It should not be too hard to get approval as we already comply with the relevant law. But we must be prepared to give assurances that the current level of regulatory convergence will be maintained and that we will not deviate from it. How long the Commission then takes to process our application is up to it. We are in no position to make demands.

Regulatory conformity, incidentally, is not simply a question of applying rules only to those enterprises which export to the EU. It requires the adoption of nation-wide health measures and the maintenance of disease-free conditions in accordance with EU rules, right across the board. This should not be too bitter a pill to swallow, though, as the provisions set are in accordance with the global rules recommended by the OIE.

It is an issue we cannot afford to ignore. Apart from the racing activities, there are fears that the lucrative bloodstock sales might be affected if stock cannot be brought in easily and then re-exported to Community destinations.

As always, though, all these issues are negotiable – and will need to be negotiated, although they would cease to be a problem if we remained in the EEA. But the roof will only fall in if Mrs May decides to walk without a deal. Fortunately, the public are signalling that they do not favour this option, with 51 percent against it. Only 34 percent of respondents said they wanted too leave the EU with no deal.

It seems, therefore, that the public have more sense than the politico-media nexus. Bluntly, though, as the problems multiply, the idea of leaving without a deal is insane.



Richard North 01/02/2017 link

UK politics: euro-blindness

20/06/2014  

Anne McIntosh is at it again. As chairman of the EFRA Committee, she managed to get through the entire horsemeat crisis without mentioning the EU. 

Now, her committee has produced a report on the winter floods, covering amongst other things the flooding of the Somerset Levels. And, despite the central role of EU law and policies, it should come as no surprise that two words are completely missing from the report: European Union.

It is hard to believe that this can be an accident. More likely, it is a morbid clinical condition – the total inability of MPs to recognise their own impotence. As a result, they have developed chronic euro-blindness, an illness that renders the presence of the European Union and all its works completely invisible.

Mostly, the affliction affects MPs, but it also affects working members of the media and other groups. The illness is probably incurable but, unfortunately, is not fatal. We do feel, however, that it should be a capital offence.

FORUM THREAD


Richard North 20/06/2014 link

UKIP: the direction of travel

12/03/2014  

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Despite the EU role in the Somerset flooding, the debacle over Ukraine, the corporate tax avoidance arising from EU's "free movement of capital and payments" provisions, the horsemeat scandal, the silicone breast implants scandal, and sundry other EU-inspired disasters, the latest poll on leaving the EU gives the "outers" 39 percent and the "inners" 41 percent.

With a two percent lead to those who want to stay in the European Union, you might ask what it takes actually to get people to want to leave the evil empire.

But then, most people haven't been told about the EU role in the Somerset flooding, Ukraine, tax avoidance, horsemeat, breast implants, etc., etc. In the main, all they get from the media is the low drone of assorted FUD, with very little counterbalancing intelligence on how the UK could remain in the Single Market once it had left the EU.

It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that the majority support the status quo, staying in the European Union. But there is more to it than that. Alongside the FUD, we've also been getting a steady drip-drip of publicity hostile to UKIP, in the Times and then the latest offering from the Daily Mail. This projects the party's London HQ as a bizarre freakshow. It paints a picture that would have most normal people crossing the road to avoid contact with the party, driving out any thought of voting for Mr Farage.

That certainly seems to be the case with at least 80 percent of the population, as the latest ICM poll on European election voting intentions indicates (below). This has 20 percent opting for UKIP, 35 percent for Labour, 25 percent for the Tories and the Lib-Dems on 9 percent. 

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Against historical performances, 20 percent is an encouraging figure, although it now puts UKIP in third place, and a very long way from the "political earthquake" promised by Mr Farage. If all he is able to deliver is third place, his credibility is on the line. But so is the credibility of the entire anti-EU movement, especially as Mr Farage wants the euro elections to be a referendum on the EU.

Furthermore, on general voting intentions, the news is even glummer. Labour stands at 38 percent, and the Conservatives creep in with 35 percent. But UKIP drops back to just nine percent in fourth place, while the Lib-Dems claw back third position with 12 percent of the poll. 

This is against a background of UKIP flatlining in the polls. Ever since the May "surge", the UKIP vote has been on the decline. Now, YouGov has the party oscillating between 11-14 percent, with very little movement out of that range for more than six months.

In a real life parliamentary by-elections, however, we are seeing much the same thing. At Wythenshaw, the party attracted only 5.7 percent of the electorate, with an overall turnout of 28 percent. In South Shields, it took a 9.4 percent share of the electorate. It took 14.8 percent share at Eastleigh, and 7.3 percent of the available vote at Rotherham.

With the one exception of Eastleigh, therefore, the party has been unable to mobilise more than ten percent of the electorate. It shows no evidence of having re-energised electoral politics, as turnouts remain poor. And, against the baseline of Eastleigh, the party's electoral support is going down. That is roughly what the polls are showing: gradually declining popular support and no sign of an electoral breakthrough.

All of that renders rather irrelevant the message of booksellers Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin. As some time political analysts, they are trying to sell the message that UKIP has greater potential than its poll results indicate. In theory, that may be true, but it also illustrates that they are out of their depth.  

In terms of "potential", a political party dedicated to leaving the EU (supposedly) should be able to pull in the bulk of the 39 percent who say they want to leave the EU. Such people should, potentially at least, be UKIP supporters. But, as we saw last year, the party also invites some pretty sharp reaction, with 43 percent of voters declaring the would never vote for it under any circumstances. More recently, we saw UKIP as the least liked and most disliked party.

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As stories abound of bizarre happenings in the party, only so much can be put down to "smears". To be asked why he is paying both his wife and his former mistress from his official secretarial allowance (note Barroso watching in the background) is not something which can easily be ignored, especially as the legacy media have been exceptionally quick to pick up the story.

Under such circumstances, a British MP would find it hard to keep his seat - a leader of a serious political party more so, especially when he is attracting critical comment of an extremely damaging nature.

Such low-grade revelations will continue, though, because, at its heart, UKIP is not a serious political party. And the percentage of "never" voters can only increase. But, even if hostile stories are dismissed as "smears", there is something which Ford and Goodwin clearly do not understand about the party. And that "something" explains what is happening. It explains the poll results.

Essentially, UKIP is not only fundamentally unserious. It is an empty vessel, devoid of any substance. The party has been strident on the subject of immigration, openly courting the BNP vote - as Mr Farage has been happy to acknowledge - but when it comes to leadership on issues such as the Somerset flooding, Ukraine, tax avoidance, horsemeat, breast implants, etc., etc., its voice has been uncertain, weak and often contradictory.   

If it had substance, a solid core, it could ride the smears and still make converts. But the closer people get to the party and the more exposure it gets, the more apparent the emptiness becomes. Unable to counter the FUD, and lacking ability to put the EU on the spot, it seems to be losing us the wider battle, as well as its own battle for votes. It may be a "eurosceptic" party, but by no measure can it be said to be leading a coherent, much less growing, anti-EU movement.

Inertia may get it some sort of electoral victory in the euros, but the chances of it "winning" the contest outright are now receding. And, on current results, the chances of us winning an "in-out" referendum are nil. That much we do know, now we know the direction of travel. The paths of UKIP, the political party, and the anti-EU movement are diverging. The one is no longer the other.



Richard North 12/03/2014 link

Media: bent bananas and a diet of trivia

10/03/2014  

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Two episodes recently have highlighted the malign role of the European Union, the flooding of the Somerset Levels, and the meddling in the Ukraine. In neither instance, however, has the legacy media been able to handle the EU involvement, or explain its importance.

Yet, in the Sunday Express yesterday, we get a trivial little story, complete with an editorial, headed "Garden meddling EU must finally be cut down to size".

And that is the measure of our media. When the great debate erupted over corporate tax avoidance, the media was silent on the role of the EU and the "free movement of capital and payments" provisions of the treaties. Over the horsemeat scandal, it was similarly silent about the failure of EU regulation, which created the conditions for the wholesale fraud. Likewise, we saw next to no criticism of the EU in the silicone breast implants scandal, despite the egregious failure of the CE system.

The only way, it seems, that the media can deal with the EU is in terms that it can understand, To do so, it reduces the complexity of the EU into something it can cope with, turning it into a  "red-tape" machine, and then spends its time chasing after "bent banana" stories and the like. 

This type of story the hacks can deal with at a comic-book level, keeping them within their comfort zone. But, when it comes to looking at the EU as a serious force, engaged in serious policy issues, the hacks simply cannot cope. This does not fit their narrative. The EU is allowed to be a "threat" to our gardens, but not to world peace.

Interestingly, the issue at hand we dealt with in September last when the Daily Mail made a hash of the story. Far from being and "EU red tape" story, these rules actually originate with the OECD.  We saw the same dynamic with the jam story.  When the media pins the blame on the EU, any other agency is invisible.

The system of global governance, of course, is so way beyond the comprehension of the average hack that they are not even close to being able to report the details. It is simply beyond their capability. Whole areas of policy are closed off, beyond the scope of media reportage.

And this is where, increasingly, we are going to have to fall back on our own resources. The legacy media is no longer part of the game. More part of the entertainment industry, its sates itself on a diet of trivia and superficiality. If we want detail and intelligent reporting, we will have to provide it ourselves.

Fortunately for the media, enough people are sufficiently happy with what they get. Their businesses are mostly safe. But we should no longer confuse them with news providers or analysts. We are on our own.



Richard North 10/03/2014 link

EU integration: a shaggy horse story

31/08/2013  

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I've been running Syria stories for three days running now, each of them being highly critical of the Conservative leader, Mr Cameron. And the strange thing is that I haven't had a single e-mail telling me I'm overdoing the criticism and should leave the man alone.

Nevertheless, just to be on the safe side, I've changed the tempo, picking up on a "new crisis" on horsemeat that has supposedly has hit northern Europe. What's more, the French Farmers Union says the Belgian Mafia is behind it.

It involves riding horses, which may have been treated with drugs so rendering them unfit for human consumption, which were sold from a stable to a man who promised to give them a retirement home.

Horror of horrors, though, they were not given slippers, cups of warm cocoa and places by the fireside. Instead, they were trucked to Belgium, their health passports were changed and they were then returned to France to be slaughtered for human consumption.

After the abattoir became suspicious about the horses documents, the proprietor complained to the authorities and investigators are now targeting a jockey based in the Ardennes region of eastern France.

The owner of the stables where the animals came, Arnaux Ravaux, also had doubts: "We realized that the explanations were the same every time. Once the horses had left, we had no more news from this man, and when we did manage to get hold of him, the animals were always either dead or victims of heart attacks".

But the real gem of this story comes with the punchline from euronews which tells us that in countries where eating horse is common, "this case underlines the need for a Pan European system of health controls".

So there we have it. When a jockey working for the Belgian Mafia buys up retired horses and forges new passports for them. Then, instead of feeding them hot cocoa, he flogs them off to French abattoirs to make horse meat. And that means we need more European political integration.  I bet you thought we really needed it to stop the Germans invading France – or vice versa.

In the meantime, it seems, City of London plod have admitted that, back in May, they actually arrested two men on the horsemeat scandal, and held them on suspicion of conspiracy to defraud. They interviewed another two men under caution. And, we are reliably, informed, there wasn't a ring of stars in sight. 

A pan European system of health controls, it appears, wasn't even mentioned.



Richard North 31/08/2013 link

EU politics: Whitehall likes EU shock!

23/07/2013  

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At least the Daily Mail has got it roughly right. James Landale of the BBC notes that the first six out of 32 non-committal reports have been published deliberately without fanfare on a quiet Monday in July while MPs are not sitting with all eyes elsewhere.

There is lots of meat for eurosceptics and europhiles alike, he says. Each can choose what they wish to further their arguments. But that is all. The debate may be more informed but it has not changed. 

The problem is, reviewing these reports is like paddling in a septic tank. The next one I've been looking at Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety Report, which covers areas in which EU policy density is particularly high. It is turgid beyond extreme. 

Mercifully, the report is "only" 69 pages. With this and the energy stuff, I've looked at over 300 pages of officialese in one slug over the lest 24-hours. No one can really absorb this – and they don't. You dip in, fillet it and move on. But this is no way to run a railroad. 

One interesting bit we pull out is in the introduction of this current report, from which we e learn that consumer survey data suggests that UK consumers are largely unaware of the role the EU plays in making food law. Only 11 percent preferred food law to be made by the EU, although this figure rose to 23 percent when people were given some information about EU legislation. 

And there you go: in Europe and run by Europe, but most people don't actually realise. Yet, we sort of knew that from the horsemeat fraud. But if people don't even recognise an EU failure when it happens, it is difficult to get informed comment.

In fact, that one thing – horsemeat fraud – illustrates the fatuity of this entire review. We could write (and effectively have written) hundreds of pages on evaluating just this one aspect of EU law. Thus, for all the length, 69 pages in this report can only glide of the issues. It cannot and does not do justice to them. 

This we see especially in page 50, headed "International issues". Half a page is devoted to Codex, and the other half to OIE, and then another page looks at these organisations and the WTO. Look at how many pages on this blog we've devoted to Codex, and you immediately realise just how thin this report really is. 

In six short paragraphs, the issue of "Global standards rather than EU competence" is rehearsed. Some respondents such as attendees at the Brussels Workshop, we are told, questioned whether or not being locked into an EU position at Codex served the UK's national interest. The Agricultural Industries Confederation was also concerned that UK interests were diluted by EU representation at Codex. 

And then respondents such as Dundee City Council argued that the EU has a more powerful voice than the UK as it speaks as one united bloc of 28 different Member States. Similarly, Cefas argued that the EU was highly influential when negotiating within the OIE. 

Look at three pieces we have done, herehere and here, and there is far more argument and relevant detail than you will find in the entire report, much less these trivial little snatches. 

What emerges is that the civil service, with the backing of the FCO, is reporting what it wants to find. According to the Financial Times, a senior government official says: "In none of these areas did the balance of evidence suggest the balance of competences was not broadly appropriate". Another one said, "We are happy with the overall balance of evidence. The exercise is not to reach definitive Government judgments in these things". The review had not been "designed to produce recommendations or make EU policy".

The exercise is actually a complete waste of time and effort. By the time the EU referendum debate gets under way – if it ever does – this exercise will be gone and forgotten. The two reports we have so far looked at have settled nothing, and the others are unlikely to deliver anything of significance. 

COMMENT: "REVIEW OF COMPETENCES" THREAD



Richard North 23/07/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: Europe-wide investigations stall

11/05/2013  

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The agri-food industry is the second largest economic sector in the European Union, employing over 48 million people and is worth some €750 billion a year. Of that, one of the most valuable sectors is the meat industry, marketing high value products which form the basis of massive, secondary food processing industries.

The horsemeat fraud affair shone a bright light into the more unsavoury corners of these industries, and it is now unsurprising that the major players are not too keen on even further scrutiny, especially by a properly structured official inquiry, staffed by people who know what they are looking for, and have some understanding of the industry.

It is a measure of how far the issue has slipped down the political agenda, though, that only the loss-making Guardian is reporting on how the inquiry process seems to have stalled – in part due to the intransigence of the Irish (where there are major criminal elements in the meat industry), and partly due to high-level political interference in the setting up of the inquiries.

Add to this the incompetence of the House of Commons EFRA committee, chaired by former euro-luvvie Anne McIntosh, and you have an issue which is sliding into obscurity, with many of the problems that gave rise to the horsemeat affair entirely unrecognised and unresolved.

Bizarrely, even though the necessary scrutiny has not yet taken place, the European Commission is already acting, coming up with proposals to make financial penalties directly related to profits from "fraud", and mandatory spot-check testing.

Neither of these proposals will have any effect on food fraud in general, an industry in its own account, which has become a vast, multi-billion criminal enterprise with a global reach. And it was of this that we were catching a glimpse during the height of the horsemeat scandal.

So far, though, with at least 4,000 samples of meat have been tested, and millions of pounds-worth of food having been taken off sale – much of it destroyed – only three people have been arrested, and there are no major prosecutions in the offing.

To that extent, the Guardian's concern is merited – expect that, like the rest of the British media, it has not thought to comment on, or even report, the Commission initiative. It really is quite stunning that what amounts to a major legislative programme, affecting the entire agri-food matrix, is being entirely ignored by the media.

In a way, though, this is understandable. Since food regulation (and food policy in general) is dictated by Brussels, there is little British involvement in the legislative process. And nor can inquiries hope to do very much without factoring-in the European (and global) dimension, over which they have no jurisdiction or reach.

Thus it is that the involvement of Brussels has sucked the life from an area of policy which once had the capacity to galvanise the nation and bring down governments. Now it is simply the minority interest of a loss-making newspaper which sees the potential for making mischief around the edges, as long as it doesn't dig too deeply.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 11/05/2013 link

UK politics: they still don't get it

08/05/2013  

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Only a few days ago, the media were wibbling about "lazy" MPs being given an extra twelve days "holiday" because there were not enough new laws to debate.

But one thing missing from the discourse was any mention of that king-sized elephant in the room, the EU. No one thought to mention that the reason our MPs have so little to do is because most of our law-making is outsourced to Brussels and beyond.

And now, on the day of the Queen's speech, we again get what passes for analysis but, once again, the "limited package" is again seen entirely through the filter of domestic politics.

Labour's Chris Bryant claims the speech is so thin it is "practically translucent" (a bit like his underpants). But, its "limited nature”, writes James Kirkup, "reflects the simple fact that we are now less than two years from the next general election. More than anything else, that timetable defines and dictates the Government's agenda".

Most of the Coalition's big decisions were made long ago, says Kirkup, and the biggest, on economic policy, was never a matter of legislation. Whatever legislation was needed for major domestic reforms – welfare, schools, the NHS reorganisation – has already been passed.

All that remains, he says, is delivery, "actually trying to make those changes work, and make them work in a manner that voters see and appreciate".

Yet, as we wrote those few days ago, the European Parliament has rarely been busier, listing on its database 1,301 "legislative acts" so far, for its 2009-2014 session. That is where the action is, we wrote, demonstrating how far the power has drained from Westminster.

And just by coincidence, in Brussels on Monday, where the eurocrats were not on holiday, the Commission launched a major new initiative under the working title of "Smarter rules for safer food", a "landmark package to modernise, simplify and strengthen the agri-food chain in Europe".

Not least of the measures proposed are those to deal with the fall-out from the horsemeat fraud, but there is a huge range of issues being dealt with, from animal health to the marketing of seeds.

Says the Commission, "the current body of EU legislation covering the food chain consists of almost 70 pieces of legislation. Today's package of reform will cut this down to five pieces of legislation and will also reduce the red-tape on processes and procedures for farmers, breeders and food business operators (producers, processors and distributors) to make it easier for them to carry out their profession".

But, for the Queen's speech, the nearest we get to dealing with livestock is the announcement of a provision which will lead to an amendment to the Dangerous Dogs Act. The real thing is an EU competence, so this need not concern our media. Despite the massive scale of the EU initiative, it has not been reported in the UK by the national newspapers.

Therein lies yet more evidence that the legacy media is writing itself out of the script. It no longer has any pretensions of reporting the news in any responsible way, while its analytical skills have atrophied to the extent that they are producing little that is actually worth reading.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 08/05/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: a huge system failure

10/04/2013  

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Some 50,000 tons of meat supplied by two Dutch trading companies and sold as beef across Europe since January 2011 may have contained horsemeat, reports the BBC and others. The meat is being recalled where possible, the Dutch authorities say.

The suspect meat was supplied by Wiljo Import en Export BV and Vleesgroothandel Willy Selten and, in total, 132 companies in the Netherlands and some 370 more around Europe are affected by the discovery.

The find was made as part of EU-wide tests to trace horse DNA in processed beef foods and to detect a veterinary drug used on horses. Inspectors examining the records of the Dutch trading companies found that the origin of the supplied meat was unclear. As a result it was not possible to confirm whether slaughterhouses had respected procedures.

The recall covers meat dating back to 1 January 2011 up until 15 February this year, but what is not being said is that such a large quantity of meat placed, undetected, on the market, the provenance of which is unknown – and was only discovered as a result of special measures adopted after earlier discoveries - represents a massive failure of the EU mandated regulatory system.

And as for the Netherlands, where the failure has been detected, the food control system has been inspected on many occasions by the EU's Food and Veterinary Office (FVO), most recently in September 2011, when such issues as "traceability" requirements were examined and passed muster.

That the temporary "fix" is now picking up the system defects – at last – should not be allowed to obscure that fact that the system as devised, mandated and approved by the EU failed to do the job, and it has taken national agencies to pick up the pieces.

Such points have been made before on this blog, but it remains the case that the EU is given a free ride by the legacy media, its failures unremarked and unrecorded. The omissions don't change the reality though. Whatever the EU turns its hand to is usually a disaster, sooner or later.

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 10/04/2013 link

Food fraud: fish - a predictable finding

02/04/2013  

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Ever since we learned of the US Oceana report, it was inevitable that, if a similar exercise was conducted here, we would also find a degree of fraudulent substitution.

And so it has proved to be, with "huge amounts of cheap fish are being passed off in Britain as more expensive varieties as consumers fall victim to a 'murky and complex' cost-cutting scam".

Research carried out by the University of Salford has found that seven percent of cod and haddock - the staple of British fish and chips - are being mislabelled in supermarkets, shops and restaurants in what the Mail calls "a worrying parallel to the horsemeat scandal".

This is, by comparison with the US, where 33 percent of samples were mislabeled, is a relatively modest amount. My guess is that if processed fish products, such as fish fingers and fish cakes, were looked at, the substitution rate would be found to be much higher

That is perhaps suggested by a similar study in the Republic of Ireland, which found that as much as a quarter of products were actually completely different species, while that figure rose to as much as a third across Europe as a whole.

Dr Stefano Mariani, a biologist at the University of Salford who conducted part of the UK study, says: 'We noted that there were some suppliers that were consistently handling fish that was proven to be mislabelled, which suggests that a lot of mislabelling occurs before the fish gets delivered to the supermarket".

He found that cod in Britain and Ireland was being substituted with cheaper fish like pollock and Vietnamese pangasius, which is farmed in estuaries in South-East Asia.

Scientists who have studied the issue, adds the Mail believe mislabelling of fish is too widespread not to be fraud. But, as we have highlighted earlier, there are retail buyers who are quite happy with the situation as it stands.

Interestingly, much of the world's supply of frozen fish is produced in China and significant quantities of Europe's produce is flown in via Frankfurt airport. But, as with horsemeat, no offence is committed until the produce is knowingly mislabelled.

But, where this type of fraud is involved, the EU paper-based food control regime is clearly not up to the task. The Single Market is turning out to be a superhighway for fraud, and the systems are manifestly not capable of dealing with it.

Not for nothing have the Norwegians gone to Interpol, rather than Europol, and are now part funding a global crackdown on fisheries crime. Given the similarity, in the nature of the crime, with the horsemeat scam, they maybe need to be covering a wider range of products. Fraudsters are not particular about their choice of food – just whether there is money to be made.

There can be no doubt, though, that this has to be tackled at a global as well as a local level. This is beyond the means of "little Europe".



Richard North 02/04/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: is someone taking the pig?

25/03/2013  

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The Danes have been congratulating themselves over the horsemeat fraud affair, after finding that adulteration has not been at all widespread.

They have, however, been somewhat disconcerted by reports that 11 of 70 beef samples tested have shown positive for pork. In seven out of the eleven samples, the level was in excess of seven percent.

Food minister Mette Gjerskov is "outraged", saying that when there is more than one percent pork in beef, it is not carelessness with mincers and using the same knives that industry often claims. It is cheating and cheating, because there is a financial gain from using pork in the more expensive beef.

The minister is now exploring options for tighter controls, looking at whether testing can be carried out, and whether it is best to sample it before it ends up on the cold counter. Whatever else, the minister concedes that there is a need to strengthen surveillance.

One wonders though whether there is more to this than meets the eye (so to speak). There is a small price differential between pigmeat and beef, but not anything like as great as between horsemeat and beef. Adulterating beef with small amounts of pork is hardly going to make anyone rich, and seems hardly worth the risk.

Denmark, however, is the land of those cartoons, and where there is considerable antipathy towards the flood of Muslim immigrants. Could it be therefore, that the adulteration is driven not by the prospect of financial gain, but for other reasons.

Muslims are prohibited from eating pork, which they regard as "unclean" (including those people who don't use toilet paper) , and spiking their food with pork could be regarded as making a statement. And not a few people believe that this is precisely what is happening.



Richard North 25/03/2013 link

European Council: does anyone care?

16/03/2013  

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One senses that even (or especially) the legacy media is struggling to find something interesting to report. Nevertheless, I am sure that the Council conclusions are terribly important for the whole of personkind.

Given what I've been writing about EU regulation and horsemeat, though, how do you begin to take paragraph 9(c) seriously?

This is the bit that tells you: "Further action is required to reduce the overall burden of regulation at EU and national levels, while always taking account of the need for proper protection of consumers and employees".

The trouble is that one the passage falls at the very first hurdle. "Further", it says. "Further"? That implies that some action has already been taken to reduce the burden of EU regulation. It would be better if the word had been omitted completely, although even "some" would have been more honest.

Actually, I'm getting bored with this whole argument about regulation and its "burdens". If it is needed to stop rapacious and dishonest meat processors ripping off their customers, regulation should impose burdens – the burden of being honest, of making the appropriate checks, of selling what's on the label.

Currently, the great defect of food regulation is that it imposes the wrong sort of burden – keeping the "good guys" bogged down with paperwork while letting the crooks walk away unpunished.

Somehow, though, Mr Cameron seems to believe he's got a good deal. I doubt he has, for his understanding of the workings of regulation is bound to be slight.

Then there is enforcement. Nobody, but nobody talks about enforcement. Bad law can be, to some extent, mitigated by good enforcement.  No amount of law, good or bad, will survive incompetent or malicious enforcement. But if Mr Cameron has little experience of law making, he has precisely none of enforcement.

So, instead of action, on a rainy Friday afternoon, we got paragraph 9(c) of the Council Conclusions. And none dare not call it a victory, for without that, what is there to applaud? But, in truth, does anyone actually care?



Richard North 16/03/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: the Irish dimension - part 2

16/03/2013  

Irish 015-sec.jpg

Briefly mentioned in part 1, the real villains of this continuing drama are not so much Silvercrest, as QK Meats – now spread all over the Irish press, not least in the Irish Times. This keeper of secrets is a subsidiary of the Queally Group, a group with a current value in excess of €1.5 billion which claims to be one of Ireland's largest privately owned Agri-businesses.

Look for the Queally Group on the web, however, and you will come up with this website, which advertises its flagship company, Dawn Meats. Of QK Meats, you will find no official company presence. Its website address is qkmeats.com, but this has evidently been taken down, for good reason. All we get is, "Error: The Query produced no records".

Thanks to the cleverness of the Wayback Machine though, we can see the website in all its former glory (pictured below - click to enlarge), noting that the company has supplied meat products to over 40 countries world-wide since 1991. 

QKmeats 001.jpg

Ironically, it claims that, "Complete traceability along the chain from 'Gate to Plate' is guaranteed with production to the highest standards". And a separate page on food safety tells us:
To enable both QK and its customers to serve the market at the highest levels we have achieved accreditation's such as higher level EFSIS, British Retail Consortium (BRC) membership of the Bord Bia quality assurance scheme, triple hygiene award from Excellence Ireland and a fully implemented HACCP system.
The irony starts to become apparent when the company was recently implicated in the supply of meat to Frigilunch which in turn had supplied Birds Eye with a number of products.

Birds Eye had been drawn into the drama when one of its chilli con carne products had tested positive for horse DNA in Belgium. Birds Eye then withdrew Spaghetti Bolognese and Beef Lasagne in the UK as a precaution, and subsequently confirmed that these products had tested positive for horse DNA as well. 

Grocer 015-qkm.jpg

Birds Eye said it believed QK Meats was the source of horse DNA in both UK products and the chilli con carne from Belgium. That was on 5 March, but we now find from the Irish report that QK Meats had been involved much, much earlier.

Details in fact started to emerge after the Irish Department of Agriculture had found horsemeat at Silvercrest. It had then conducted further enquiries to establish whether Polish labelled product had been used in other meat processing plants in Ireland. This led to QK Meats informing the Department on 5 February last that it had imported consignments of Polish labelled beef trimmings. Some of these had tested positive for equine DNA.

The company then told the Department that products had been sourced from some 19 different Polish suppliers over a sustained period and these stocks had been stored in QK Cold Stores, in Naas, Co. Kildare. QK Meats subsequently admitted that, based on its own "risk assessment", it had tested 15 consignments from nine of its 19 different Polish suppliers. Seven of these had been positive for equine DNA.

What has shocked an outraged both the Department and the media in general, though, is that the first positive test result was on 27 June 2012. Yet, instead of warning the Department, the company kept the information secret, simply contacting the Polish supplier whose representative visited the plant and arranged to take back the consignment.

And this had by no means been the end of it. Further positive tests results on other consignments of Polish labelled product were obtained by the company in October, November, December 2012 and January 2013. QK Meats claimed that none of the equine positive raw material entered the food chain, but nevertheless continued to source raw material from Poland while being aware of its suspect nature.

Another damning fact is that QK Meats was buying the Polish-labelled beef at €400 per ton less than the price of corresponding beef trimmings available in Ireland, making it clear that price had been the primary motivator in utilising imported ingredients in the manufacturing process.

Still it goes on. Despite having found some products positive for horsemeat, the company did not test other consignments. Some of these were used in the manufacture of frozen minced meat preparations at a rate of between 10 and 40 percent, for a range of customers in six countries. 

Other than suggesting that there were "mumblings" in the trade about suspect Polish raw material, QK Meats did not explain fully why it was testing for equine DNA since last June or why, having found equine DNA in some products did not test all such products.

Thus, says the official report, while these findings are extremely disturbing, QK Meats, knowing that the State was involved in a full public investigation into the source of equine contamination during the latter part of January, failed to inform the Department of its earlier findings following positive DNA test results.

These facts, it says, would have informed the official investigation in a significant way and, most likely would have led to earlier conclusions on the source of equine DNA. Failure on their part to act at a much earlier time was inexcusable.

It then adds that the this failure on the part of QK Meats senior management showed scant regard for the public good and was a serious failure of judgement on its part in not revealing to the official authorities. The information could have shortened the initial phase of the investigation in identifying the likely source of the equine DNA.

But hey! The company can't be that bad. It has all its certifications and accreditation, it conforms with BRC Global Standards, it has a triple hygiene award from Excellence Ireland and it has a fully implemented HACCP system. All the bells and whistles were there. How could there possibly be a problem?

COMMENT THREAD



Richard North 16/03/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: the Irish dimension - part 1

15/03/2013  

Irish 015-rep.jpg

Simon Coveney, the Irish minister of agriculture yesterday released his government's official report on its investigation into the horsemeat affair. It has been crawled over by the Irish press, such as in the Irish Times (above), which reveals some of the excoriating criticism of the meat industry.

Bizarrely, although it was the Irish finding that triggered the whole of the horsemeat "scare", I have yet to see any reports in the British press, even though, as the Irish Independent picks up, a major Irish food company kept secret its discovery of horse meat in beef products last summer and was later found to have supplied contaminated meat found in school meals and Birds Eye products.

The company was slated for its "inexcusable" delay in notifying Coveney's department of its discovery of horse DNA in imported meat until weeks after the Europe-wide crisis broke. Coveney then criticised QK Meats in the Irish Parliamant, for "knowingly withholding information about problems in the supply chain".

He also criticised management at the ABP food group for failing to maintain proper oversight of its Silvercrest plant and warned that QK and ABP were "risking reputational damage to the Irish food sector itself".

The official report concludes that there was "no evidence that Silvercrest knowingly purchased horsemeat", but the company itself has admitted that "it had used non-approved suppliers in breach of specifications laid down by some of its major customers".

The "failure of management in this regard and the inherent disrespect for customer requirements", says the report, "has led to very serious consequences not just for the company concerned but has also put at risk the reputation of the entire agri-food sector in Ireland".

"It is a real concern that management oversight and corporate governance structures were not in place to prevent the failures detected in this investigation in Silvercrest", the report adds, noting that, Silvercrest did not fulfil its responsibility to ensure the quality and authenticity of the products it was selling. It "deliberately failed to respect its customer expectations and agreed supply contracts".

Silvercrest 015-foo.jpg

Now compare and contrast the corporate BS on the company website (above):
At Silvercrest we produce the highest quality frozen beef, lamb and pork burgers and grillsteaks at our high technology plant. Our customers include major leading retailers and foodservice companies in Ireland, England and across Europe. They serve the discerning consumer who demand quality, taste and the assurance of rigorous food safety standards.
Then, we get the usual litany of high-flown claims about monitoring and standards (illustrated below), with again reference to the BRC Global Standard that we identified yesterday, on the GA International website – the industry equivalent of "go-faster" stripes, with now just as much credibility. 

Silvercrest 015-haa.jpg

Also we see the corporate BS in full spate, as the company tells us:
We operate using a comprehensive, validated HACCP plan, carefully constructed by the on-site fully trained HACCP team. This has strengthened quality management systems and in turn increased customer confidence in Silvercrest Foods to produce a safe product by using a preventative approach to product safety hazards.
And yes, all the staff will have been "fully trained" in the procedures, and the plant will have been inspected by diligent "auditors", who will have rigorously filled in their tick-boxes and compiled their independent certification awards.

So to complete the charade, the company proudly displays its awards (below), including the 2012 SuperMeat & Fish Award. There is no truth, of course, that the company has been shortlisted for the best adulterated food award of 2013, sponsored by the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigations. 

APB awards.jpg

As we observed yesterday, though, this is precisely the BS that the European Union bought into when establishing its own legislation, supported by national enforcement agencies, turning standards into a corporate charade that puts the consumer last and least, at the end of a long list.

Says the Irish report, "The disclosure in Ireland of adulteration of beef products with equine DNA has prompted other authorities to examine this issue". And, surprise, surprise, "It transpired that what had been uncovered was a pan- European problem of fraudulent mislabelling of certain beef products".

"Almost all Member States have been affected by the problem. Indeed it has been uncovered outside of the European Union. It became a global problem affecting some large global companies and international food brands".

Corporate BS, is indeed a global problem, and it is going to take some fixing. Whether banks, the food industry, water providers or energy suppliers, they are all at the same game. The only difference now is that it is the meat industry's turn to be caught out. The question is, as the Irish Times asks, whether there are to be any prosecutions.



Richard North 15/03/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: mischievous media

14/03/2013  

Sun 014-ves.jpg

In a typical example of tabloid mischief-making, The Sun today "reveals" that the Queen's Master of the Horse "supplied beef laced with horse meat to one of the UK's biggest catering firms".

This goes back to late February when the caterer Sodexo was reported to have withdrawn products from sale after horsemeat was found in them.

At the time, Sodexo refused to name their supplier, and both the FSA and ministers refused to make the name public, claiming that this could prejudice further investigations of what, on the face of it, were criminal offences.

Last night, however, the supplier was named, which The Sun names as one of the Vestey Foods Group, a privately owned group of thirteen food companies trading all over the world.

Picking on the name, however, allows the tabloid (followed by the rest of the personality-obsessed media) to pick on Lord Vestey (pictured), chairman of the group and former chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse. Since 1999, he has served as the Queen's Master of the Horse - a ceremonial role responsible for the "horses of the sovereign".

The way the story reads, one could almost take it that Lord Vestey personally dropped chunks of horsemeat into the Sodexo order, while, according to The Sun and the dreadful Mary Creagh, "Tory ministers" are engaged in a high level cover-up, "protecting their friends in high places rather than the interests of British consumers".

In fact, the supplier is GA International Food Services Ltd in the Labour heartland of Pontefract, one of the Vestey Group enterprises which moved into the area in 2004 to give jobs to unemployed miners, and their wives, after the collapse of the coal industry in the region.

Lord Vestey would have no more knowledge of the detail of the operation that Mary Creagh herself, or her partner in crime, Labour MP Jon Trickett, in whose constituency the plant is situated. But, given its location, this is obviously clear evidence of a plot to destabilise Tory ministers.

In fact, the clue to what has gone wrong lies in the company's website, where we see that it conforms to BRC Global Standards on food safety – part of the same madness that spawned HACCP and which drives the food safety industry, leading down the cul-de-sac of paper-led certification instead of intelligence-led inspections and traditional enforcement measures. You can tell where their interests lie from the introduction:
The BRC Global Standards are a leading global safety and quality certification programme, used throughout the world by over 17,000 certificated suppliers in 90 countries through a network of over 80 accredited and BRC recognised Certification Bodies. The BRC Global Standards are widely used by suppliers and global retailers. They facilitate standardisation of quality, safety, operational criteria and manufacturers' fulfilment of legal obligations. They also help provide protection to the consumer.
The essence here is standardisation, which stems back to the 70s when supermarkets started employing their own inspectors and setting their own hygiene standards. Suppliers found themselves besieged with rival inspectors, often requiring wildly different and often contradictory standards, so much so that a large plant could be getting two or three inspection a week.

To resolve this problem came the industry bodies such as the BRC to produce their own standards, the name of the game being to reduce the number of inspections to, latterly, to provide evidence of conformity which could be used in any "due dilligence" defence. Note how "protection to the consumer" comes as an afterthought.

From what I know of Vestey Group operations, they always were a cut above the rest, but aggressive in defending their interests against local authority inspections. It would be a brave inspector who took them on, and rare to have your council back you, as the expense of taking a case against a Vestey Group company could be prodigious.

Latterly, the "BRC Global Standards" and similar scheme, have provided the "get out of jail free" cards to the food industry, enabling companies to protect themselves from the risk of food safety and related prosecutions, while providing their supermarket and corporate customers with the paperwork needed for their "constructive ignorance" defences.

It was this ethos which infected the EU at the turn of the century, and led to the current food safety package, brought about by intensive corporate lobbying and ignorance on the part of the legislators.

Throughout this affair, this has been at the heart of the problem, and how nice it would be if the media actually focused on the real issues. I did, in fact, take a phone call from Reuters, taking ninety minutes to explain to a journalist the failings of the regulatory system to a Brussels correspondent. But no story was ever published. The issue is beyond the competence of the media to report.

Strangely, though, at a higher level than the EU, in UNECE, we are beginning to see a glimmer of intelligence. Says Alberto Alemanno. Assessing the EU response to the horsemeat fraud, he sees policymakers selling the EU consumer "the illusion of addressing their concerns while instead relying on the first available policy option that promises a quick fix".

"Creating rules is definitely easier, though more expensive for tax payers, than making sure that they are abided by", he adds, offering a truism that is easy to say but hard to put into practice. Not least, policymakers tend to want panaceas. Devising real solutions is far too difficult for EU politicians and risks upsetting too many powerful people.



Richard North 14/03/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: back in the news

14/03/2013  

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After something of a pause, food adulteration has suddenly made a brief reappearance. Another Tesco product has been found to contain two to five percent horsemeat.

This is 600g packs of frozen meatloaf, sold as "Tesco Simply Roast Meatloaf", manufactured between October 2012 and January 2013 at Eurostock in Craigavon, Northern Ireland. The product has now been withdrawn and Tesco is telling the world that said it would complete its own investigation into tracing the "source of contamination" before it took a call to continue with the supplier.

If Tesco is still referring to "contamination", that suggests it is either being a little bit coy about being associated with the "adulteration" word, much less admitting to their involvement in what is a growing epidemic of fraud.

However, if the corporate Tesco is playing games, it is not alone. Food adulteration never actually went away. Over the weekend, for instance, the Scottish Sunday Mail reported that one in three curries tested in Scottish restaurants were "fake", using cheap beef instead of lamb in popular Indian dishes such as bhoona and korma.

Substitution was found in 46 of 129 restaurants tested; 33 contained no lamb at all and the remaining 13 had some lamb, a raw ingredient priced at about £9 a kilo, adulterated with cheaper cuts of beef which could be bought for £5 kilo. Officials have not so far taken any action against the restaurants, but are trying to track down the suppliers who, in some cases, are as far away as Birmingham.

Slightly further away is Romania, where Doctor Yordan Voynov, Executive Director of the Bulgarian Food Safety Agency, reveals that his agency has discovered unreported horsemeat instead of veal in four products: boiled smoked sausages and one cold smoked flat sausage. That is four out of 25 samples, the first batch of 100 samples taken from the commercial network.

France also has been testing and admits to horsemeat having been found in pre-cooked beef meals prepared meals from four companies other than the already-identified Spanghero-Comigel.

So far, out of 140 tests, two of the new companies, Covi and Gel Alpes who supply William Saurin and Panzani, were associated with Dutch firm Draap Trading – which has already been implicated as a source of the horsemeat. The two others were Davigel (Nestlé) and corned-beef maker Toupnot, but the reports says they have had very little horsemeat.

France, though, has not just had horsemeat to contend with. Like the Americans, they too are aware of the possibility of large-scale fish substitution . Anti-fraud agents from the DGCCRF have been ordered by Consumer Minister Benoît Hamon to check sole, halibut and sea bass, to ensure that cheaper fish has not been substituted.

DGCCRF agents say they have uncovered 15,700 frauds in 740,000 checks in 142,000 businesses last year and Hamon says that, despite a 16 percent reduction in staff over the past five years he was ringfencing jobs in 2013. He also called for increased use of "mystery shoppers" to uncover fraud.

The Germans, of course, have had their aflatoxin in animal feed and their organic egg scandal to deal with. And now, it seems, the Hungarians have something fishy going on with eggs – to coin a phrase. Recently, the Customs and Finance Guard discovered in a warehouse in the southeast of the country 864,000 undeclared eggs of unknown origin, worth over €100,000. The goods have been seized and proceedings initiated against the owner of the warehouse.

Alert veterinary officials in Poland have also been busy, raiding a manufacturer in the Bydgoszcz district. It is alleged to have mixed rotting meat with expired shelf-life meat to produce sausages. To date, 25 military units have been supplied with meat from this sausage company.

Iceland went to the other extreme, their investigators finding that one meat product tested for horsemeat adulteration passed the test with flying colours, but only because no meat at all was found in the product.

Into this heady mix, though, wafts the Consumers Association (CA), full of its own importance, telling "government" what action it should take.

"The answer is simple, something must be done", is almost the tenor of the advice, as it calls for, "more surveillance that's better coordinated", even though the chances of picking up adulteration from random sampling across the whole range of products on sale is slight indeed. The CA wants Defra and the FSA to improve co-ordination, but there is nothing about involving the international police agencies, which are in the forefront of the fight.

The same limited vision afflicts their advice on "tougher enforcement", with "tough penalties" for those prosecuted. Tough penalties, there already are.  Penalties for fraud include prison. But nothing is said of the effect of "due diligence" or of the role of paper-based controls, which have weakened the control system. Instead, the CA calls for better "traceability", and "improved labelling", even though neither would have an impact on food fraud.

And the one thing we have not seen throughout the continent is the structures of the control services having any impact on the prevalence of fraud. Yet the all-knowing, all-wise CA demands that the split between food standards and labelling issues between the FSA and Defra should be ended, with the responsibility for labelling and standards moved back to the FSA.

Never mind that, throughout Europe (and most developed countries), there is a split between food safety and food standards activities – for good reasons. The skill-sets required are different, and the disciplines are very separate.

What we see, though, is the failure to recognise that we are talking about criminal enterprise, with a strong international dimension. Beyond the limited vision of the Consumers Association, we need to see police and fraud specialists in the loop. Once again, it has to be emphasised, this is primarily a criminal issue, something which the CA clearly does not understand.

More usefully, we get Petra Wissenburg corporate quality projects director for Danone telling us that we must think like criminals to beat the food fraudsters. And that again is another skill set.

The fish products industry adds that the industry sectors must cooperate and work together. That means taking food fraud seriously, which even now – to judge from Mr Tesco – is not yet happening. But only when fraud is seen for what it is will we start to see some serious progress.



Richard North 14/03/2013 link

Horsemeat fraud: a growing problem

09/03/2013  

Zeit 009-egg.jpg

The very few that watched Defra questions in Parliament on Thursday last would have witnessed shadow environment secretary Mary Creagh trying to breathe life into the "horsemeat scandal", positioning it – as she always has tried to do – as a health scare rather than consumer fraud.

From a narrow political perspective, Creagh's obsession and limited grasp of the issues has been to the advantage of environment secretary Owen Paterson, who was able to sidestep her questioning which, although aggressive was ill-judged.

Had Creagh taken a wide view of the issue, as the German media are doing, she could have done much more damage in highlighting how ineffective the food control system has become, with the food industry increasingly prone to fraud.

What particularly she is missing is the calls for reform of the system, brought into high focus with the recent episode of contaminated animal feed in Germany, of which some 10,000 tons was delivered from Serbia to 4,500 farms in seven German, with higher than acceptable levels of aflatoxin.

Thus we had Berliner Zeitung retailing a call from the chairman of the Association of Food Inspectors, Martin Müller, who declared that it was time for a centralising of food controls, with the different state authorities joining forces to tackle the problems centrally and with greater expertise.

Müller, however, warned that Germany lacked 1500 qualified food inspectors, a complaint picked up by the magazine Stern, which also echoed Müller's call for "a kind of food Europol".

The need for this was pointed up in an earlier piece in Berliner Zeitung which warns, under the heading "Food Mafia", that the gangs have discovered the food market.

The criminal business of food is on the rise, says the paper. Drug cartels have already been caught dealing with chicken and the paper also recalls that, two years ago there was a major fraud based on adulterated with champagne, in which investigators seized thousands of bottles. In another incident, the Spanish Civil Guard found cheap caviar imported from China, which counterfeiters had misdeclared as high quality and very much more expensive Iranian caviar.

In Belgium, a cheap variety apples were sold as expensive Pink Lady. The Sicilian Mafia helped with the marketing of adulterated wine. And in 2011 Italian counterfeiters misdeclared 700,000 tons of conventional flour, soy and dried fruit as organic produce, selling it at the higher organic prices.

While criminal gangs in the past have enriched themselves mainly from arms trafficking, drug smuggling and human trafficking, they have spread their activities more and more into the area of consumer goods: electronics, counterfeit trainers, pharmaceuticals and now increasingly, foods and beverages.

"This is big business, in which you can earn a lot of money," says a Europol investigator. "The high number of fake and shoddy food we have seized is worrying". Furthermore, there are indications that the trade is being funded with the proceeds of other criminal activities such as drug and human trafficking, with the food trade also being used as a means of laundering "dirty" money.

The authorities complain that they do not know enough about the structure and dimension of the illegal food business. It is clear that there is fraud within the EU as well as via imports from the United States and Asian countries. As a result, in the last two years, national and international law enforcement bodies have stepped up investigations.

Trade with inferior and banned foods has always existed says a Europol investigator, but the scale of the trade is "a fairly new phenomenon" which has emerged only a few years ago".

The highly fragmented European food market is vulnerable to fraud, he says. With agriculture, middlemen, the food industry and the retail sector in Europe, there are 24 million people in 15 million businesses. In Germany alone, there are approximately 160,000 products on the market.

Inevitably, therefore, there are numerous entry points for fraud. The processing steps are numerous and there are long transport routes. To check all participants and products at any time is impossible for the authorities, making this trillion-dollar market attractive for fraudsters.

And while the health of consumers has not been prejudiced by the current rash of food fraud, fake and shoddy does pose a risk. "Criminals who are only interested in their profits have no respect for the consumer," says Europol. "Counterfeit and substandard food and drink are often produced, transported and stored outside of any regulation and hygiene control".

Time and again, though, we see frustrations raised at the changing nature of food controls, which have – under the aegis of the EU – become more and more paper-based.

Thus we see in a recent edition of Die Zeit (pictured above) complaints that checks on organic eggs are based primarily on inspection of invoices and delivery notes. This means that if a farmer or orders too many chicken – and therefore breaches to density requirements – or buys cheaper, non-organic feed, he will suppress the relevant documents.

Also, inspections are made on announced dates which give farmers a chance to make things "disappear" and to reduce overcrowding and bring density down to acceptable limits. (It has been known, under such circumstances, to give birds a day trip to the seaside, keeping them away from the gaze of inspectors.)

However, in this instance the chairman of the Agriculture Committee of the Bundestag Hans-Michael Goldmann, does not hold back from blaming the inspectors. "To them it must have been obvious", he says, that the organic farms were producing far too many eggs for the number of birds registered.

But, says Stern magazine, although the inspectors go into the factories, they rely mostly on the written responses from the companies. The inspections by local veterinary authorities failed. Paper checks were relied upon because it was too difficult to count the chickens.

For consumers though, there is a lesson in the findings from the growing levels of food fraud, which is not evident from recent events. While the emphasis has been on supermarkets and cheap, processed food, Europol has bad news for consumers who swear by farmers' markets. Investigators find that these are the outlets most favoured for putting fake, substandard goods into circulation.

No amount of EU regulation will make it different. Laws only go so far, and paperwork is no guarantee against fraud. Thus we see the calls for more enforcement. And perversely, as border controls are relaxed, the need increases – to the extent that one wonders whether many of the gains of the so-called Single Market are being wiped out.



Richard North 09/03/2013 link
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