UK Government must address long running failure on Border controls

The long running failure of the UK Government to introduce post-Brexit Border controls on meat entering the UK continue to leave farmers and crofters exposed to the introduction of devastating animal diseases such as African Swine Fever.

As the UK Government has now ‘kicked the can down the road’ on Border controls until January 2024, East Lothian Pig Producer Jamie Wyllie, chair of NFU Scotland’s Pigs Committee is calling for the UK Government to guarantee that a robust, reliable system delivering proper border checks on food, with addition measures verifying the health and safety of meat products will be delivered in a year’s time.  He writes:

Since the UK left the EU, Westminster has had wholly inadequate border controls in place for checking meat and other products entering our country. Amongst all the chaos of securing a ‘Brexit deal’ the mechanics of how border controls would operate was somehow lost with no thought given to having the infrastructure and staff in place to manage controls when the split finally happened. A system has been promised but the deadline for when the system would be available has been repeatedly pushed back by the UK Government. Announcements in July 2022 revealed a system would not be in place for January 2023, as required in legislation, instead the legislation was re-written to make room for this latest delay. 

The new legislative timeline requires an operational system to be in place by the end of January 2024, a significant delay from the January 2021 date. 

The longer there is no system in place, the greater the distortion of the market for UK producers – with importers facing less bureaucracy that those looking to export meat from the UK to EU - and the longer our borders are left unprotected against the introduction of livestock diseases, such as African Swine Fever (ASF), into the UK herds and flocks.

If I focus on the pig sector specifically, ASF can cause up to 100 percent mortality in pigs. The UK is currently free from ASF, and we want to keep it that way. The two main ways this disease spreads are from pig-to-pig contact and in meat. The disease can stay active for over a year in frozen, cooked, or raw meat. Because the UK is an island, realistically the only way this disease can come into the country is from imported infected meat. That is why it is so important that these proper border checks are brought in. 

The threat is real. In a Border Force operation last year, 22 vans were checked with 21 identified to have illegal meat on board, apparently for personal consumption, in various condition and from countries not allowed to export to the UK due to ASF. This was a great sting for Border Force and hopefully will dissuade people from illegally bringing in meat, but this sort of checking needs to be carried our more regularly to make a real impact, and checks are needed on commercial imports to ensure they are what they say they are.

Whilst the delays in UK Government introducing border controls remain hugely frustrating for the industry, we hope they mean there will ultimately be a ‘fit for purpose’ system, when it does come into play.  The last thing the industry wants is a poor system brought in just to meet a strict deadline  We need reassurance from the UK Government that a realistic plan is in place giving the development of the new system the focus and resources it needs to deliver an effective system without further delays.

There are two parts to importation that are currently missing.  The first is the normal customs border checks that should be in place for any product coming into the country, ensuring products are what they say they are. The second part is specific to meat products which is an extra layer of protection, checking health certificates to ensure against importing meat from high-risk disease areas.

I am confident that the new controls coming in will include the normal customs checks, as applied across the board to all imported products.  My concern is that the extra protection, recognised as critically important by countries around the world importing food stuffs, will be kicked further down the line. 

The extra health protection requires a vet, in the country of origin, to certify and sign a document saying that the product is what it says it is, it hasn’t come from any regions that are not allowed to export to the UK and is free from any specific diseases. We calculate that these controls add about 6% cost onto the cost of importing or exporting.  

And let’s be clear, these are costs that the UK industry already faces when exporting meat to the EU, but not by EU exporters sending meat into the UK, distorting the market. The concern is that the future of our country’s health will be sacrificed by failing to introduce these checks.

There is an argument made that when we were part of the EU we had freedom of movement of meat anyway so why is this any different? 

The reality is that we are not part of the EU any more therefore have no control over disease mitigation measures that the EU does.  The EU does have a very sophisticated system for disease monitoring, checking and sharing which helps EU countries to mitigate risk, but we no longer have access to this system. The EU makes us do these verification and health checks so they obviously think it’s important for their member countries health. 

UK Government seem to be more focussed on meat for personal consumption, which is valuable, but the quantity of meat that comes in this way is far less than the commercially imported meat.  

That is why it is so vitally important that the correct border checks come in at the start of 2024 and don’t slip any further. Industry needs these proper checks in place to protect it. But more importantly it would also show that the government does care about protecting its pig farmers at a time when pig prices are still below breakeven. 

Author: Jamie Wyllie

Date Published:

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