Great Britain should have introduced checks on European imports beginning in January 2021 to match the position taken by the EU, according to a report.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee criticized the fact that controls on EU seafood and meat imports will not start until October 2021, with checks at the border commencing in January 2022.

The committee said the delay placed British businesses at a competitive disadvantage and reduced the incentive on the European Commission to negotiate measures that would lessen the burdens facing UK producers. It added that adhering to the revised timetable will be crucial to ensure food safety and create a regulatory level playing field.

In previous comments made in written evidence to the inquiry, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) said any further delays will present “challenges”.

Call to modernize health certificates
Introduction of import controls has been revised twice. In February 2020, the government said it would introduce full controls beginning in January 2021 but in June 2020 pushed it back to April 2021 and checks at the border beginning in July 2021.

The committee called on the government to seek agreement with the EU on digitizing the certification of paperwork such as Export Health Certificates (EHCs).

An EHC must be signed and stamped by an Official Veterinarian (OV), or for seafood exports,an Environmental Health Officer or other local authority officer, with the exporter paying for certification. Increased demand for OVs to certify EHCs have reduced the number available to do meat certification work in slaughterhouses.

To help with the shortage of trained vets, the FSA and Royal Veterinary College have agreed to reduce the standard of English required as a temporary measure, to be reviewed after six months. The British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) voiced concerns about the move given the complex and technical nature of the job.

Playing field not level 
Neil Parish MP, chair of the EFRA Select Committee, said adapting to the new processes for exporting meat and seafood to the EU hasn’t been easy with checks causing delays and costs.

“We are concerned that in the absence of equivalent checks for imports from the EU to Great Britain, there will be serious long-term repercussions for our producers. As it stands, the playing field is not even, and the Government must ensure that the new timetable to introduce import checks is adhered to,” he said.

“Even as teething problems are sorted, serious barriers remain for British exporters, and it is now imperative that the Government take steps to reduce these. By the end of the year, the Government must have developed a digital system for certifying EHCs for imports from the EU, enabling it to then negotiate a reciprocal arrangement.”

The EU is not allowing import of live bivalve mollusks, such as oysters, clams and mussels, from class B waters unless they have been purified. Production areas are classified as A, B or C, with A as the least and C as the most contaminated. In April, the FSA revised classifications of some production grounds on a seasonal basis which allowed 11 sites to get Class A status for several months.

Gary McFarlane, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health Northern Ireland director, said the report is an important step in highlighting the public health dangers inherent in the current set up.

“We were pleased to see the committee include our call to make the process easier for UK businesses by digitalising the administration, and heartened that they share our concerns regarding the complete lack of food inspections for produce coming from the EU into the UK.”

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)