Richard North, 28/01/2021  

The Oxford/AstraZeneca dispute is ideal media-fodder. The facts are difficult to establish, none of those involved are likely to sue and the subject plays to the prejudices of the different factions. This one will run and run.

But while that is absorbing the attention of the media, alongside the tyranny of numbers that is Covid-19, there seems to be little energy left to retail more tales of woe in what has become the leaden routine of the post-Brexit environment.

With a certain sameness to the reports, the lorry-watchers seem to have taken the day off, while the queues build up unreported at the Eurostar terminal and hauliers' troubles multiply throughout Europe.

The sameness certainly infests the Financial Times which picks up on the woes of the pig industry, calling in aid a familiar cast of characters headed by Richard Lister, chairman of the National Pig Association.

Lister's association has written to George Eustice, asking him to convene an urgent meeting with processors and retailers in the face of "higher costs, falling prices and a shrinking market", with the industry facing an influx of cheap European meat and more than 100,000 surplus pigs backed up on farms around the country.

Their exporting woes have been well-catalogued but there are other factors at play which are combining to pile on the misery. In mainland Europe, Covid-19 outbreaks have slowed meat processing, and cheap German pork has flooded the European market after African swine fever in wild boars in the Federal Republic led to a ban on its exports to China.

With the UK phasing in border controls for EU imports over six months, that has led to produce finding its way over here, while UK producers are having a struggle getting their product into Europe. Lister thus concludes: "The overall picture is now one of enormous disruption to our export supply chain but of minimal problems and relative ease for EU imports into the UK",

Roughly the same report is recycled in Politico, illustrating the paucity of original material and the lack of new tales to feed the endless appetite of the 24-hour media cycle.

But, although the woes of the pig farmers have been given a good airing, the farmers themselves seem to be having trouble adjusting to the new reality. The FT enlists Rob Mutimer, a Norfolk pig farmer, who inadvertently illustrates the point.

His operation, Swannington Farm to Fork, is another of those producers who sends "older sows" to Germany, where there are used for processing into salami and other pork products for which the Germans are famed.

With border delays making his deliveries uncertain, Mutimer observes: "If we don’t get this trade flow issue sorted out then we'll lose these markets that have been around all my lifetime. If UK suppliers are not reliable, then German factories will go elsewhere".

What the likes of Mutimer clearly haven't realised is the nature of the regulatory shitstorm that that are confronting since the end of the transition period, occasioned by Mrs May's rash decision to pull the UK out of the Single Market – later implemented by Johnson when he took over the reins.

Specifically, those sending products of animal origin to the EU will be confronting Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/2129 "establishing rules for the uniform application of frequency rates for identity checks and physical checks on certain consignments of animals and goods entering the Union".

Annex I provides the detail, requiring a 100 percent frequency for identity checks for such products as minced meat, and meat preparations, egg products, and "fishery products from aquaculture and bivalve molluscs for human consumption".

In practice, this means that every truck carrying any of these products must be routed to a border control post and laboriously unloaded so that the contents can be checked against the details of export health certificates, the originals of which must be presented to the inspecting officials.

In particular, the officials will seek to reconcile the unique "establishment numbers" – which identify the premises from which the products originated – with the labelling on the packaging, all of which much bear visible establishment numbers in the approved formats.

If labels are scuffed and no longer fully visible, misapplied or missing, or the details are not entered correctly on the health certificates, then the whole load can be rejected, or the authorities might ask for new certificates to be provided with the correct details. These documents have to be generated at the point of departure of the load, and then have to be couriered to the border control post – a process that can take days.

Following the identity checks, the regulation then requires a 30 percent physical inspection frequency for this category of products, where packages have to be opened and the contents physically examined. A variety of tests may be carried out, which can range to simple checks to confirm the animals species (whether beef or horsemeat, for instance), to complex, time consuming checks for pesticide or veterinary medicine residues.

Life is a little easier for carcase meat, either boxed or on the hook, whence the physical inspection rate drops to 15 percent (down from 20 percent in previous regulations), although the identity check frequency remains at 100 percent. The physical inspection rates, however, are minimum rates. If problems are found, the frequency can be increased by increments, to 30 and then 50 percent.

The point, therefore, is that this complex, onerous system is not a bug, but a feature. It might work for shipments of Brazilian beef, where the whole ship-load is a consignment, and where the package is a shipping container. But the UK sending driver-accompanied loads in single trucks is a whole new ball game.

Thus, Mutimer's plea to "get this trade flow issue sorted out" is wholly misplaced. The trade flow has been sorted out. This is the new normal and it isn't going to change.

In fact, what UK shippers are experiencing in the main is the easy bit. Held in reserve is Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/1873, the like of which should strike terror into any shipper's heart.

This sets out "the procedures at border control posts for a coordinated performance by competent authorities of intensified official controls on products of animal origin, germinal products, animal by-products and composite products", the word "intensified" giving the clue as to the content.

This applies in the case of suspected fraudulent or deceptive practices by an operator or where serious or repeated infringements of the rules are identified. All subsequent consignments from that operator are then subject to intensified controls. The action is coordinated so that the regime will be applied, regardless of port of entry.

If three consignments from the same establishment are found to be deficient, the officials can demand an inspection of the premises by the "competent authority" before further consignments are allowed.

These, of course, are only a fraction of the regulatory burden which makes up the totality of the "official controls". Mr Lister and his friend Rob Mutimer could while away their idle hours by reading the Commission website and then, for their further entertainment, look at this list of 33 separate regulatory instruments which go to make up the totality of the "official controls".

When they have scanned enough of the documents, they may well come to the conclusion that the party's over. Unfortunately, Useless Eustice is still talking about "a familiarization cost", declaring that "once people get used to it, I think it will work fine".

The word, however, has reached as far as Efta/EEA member Iceland, where Icelandic exporters, who have traditionally shipped produce via Immingham docks, for processing in Grimsby, are now diverting their produce to Rotterdam in the Netherlands, to escape the inevitable delays.

While UK commentators indulge in increasingly jingoistic displays (pictured), the economic "hit" intensifies, as the effects of our own government's incompetence takes effect. Despite its familiarity with them, only this government could make it almost impossible to export pigs' ears.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

comments powered by Disqus

Log in

Sign THA

The Many, Not the Few