Richard North, 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.

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