The Government is, once again, set to delay the introduction of checks on food imports from the EU, prompting an angry reaction from the pig industry, which has reiterated concerns over the ongoing African swine fever risk.
New controls on UK meat exports to the EU have been in force ever since the UK formally left the EU in January 2021. But the promised equivalent checks in the UK were repeatedly delayed until, finally in in April last year, the Government said it would not be introducing any checks until a new digital system was in place.
This April, the government announced that draft Border Target Operating Model would be phased in over the course of a year, starting with the introduction of health certification on imports of medium risk animal and plant products from October 31, with further checks implemented over the following 12 months, a move that was welcomed by the industry, which insisted there must be no further delays.
But, according to a report in the Financial Times (subscription), also reported in the Guardian, the checks are going to be delayed for the fifth time, with the decision due to be announced imminently. It is expected these checks will now be pushed back to the end of January when physical SPS checks are due to become operational.
The delay is intended to give the government and exporters in the EU more time to prepare for the checks, but, as reports state, it sets Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ‘on a collision course with domestic UK food producers’ who have long argued that it gives a free pass to continental rivals while they have to endure checks on all fresh food exports to the bloc.
Government insiders told the FT that the driving force behind the move is the need to bear down on inflation, as the checks will impose ‘additional costs at the border’.
A cabinet office spokesperson said it was reflecting on ‘valuable feedback provided by a range of businesses and industry stakeholders’ and would be publishing more details of the border operating model shortly. It said it was best to ‘progressively’ introduce the checks.
The decision comes just days after the government abandoned plans to force manufacturers to label their products with an alternative to the EU’s CE (Conformité Européenne) safety mark.
NPA chief executive Lizzie Wilson said: “Once again, it appears we were not told the full story by Government and, once again, this is hugely frustrating for our members.
“We have two fundamental concerns. While our members have been burdened with the cost and inconvenience of additional checks on EU exports since January 2021, the failure to impose equivalent EU checks is unfair and puts UK food producers at a significant disadvantage.
“But, more importantly, as the Government has been repeatedly warned, we need robust checks in place at our borders to protect the UK pig herd from African swine fever, a disease present and currently spreading in a number of EU countries that we trade with. The cost savings of delaying these checks would pale into insignificance compared with the massive costs of an ASF outbreak.”
British Veterinary Association President Malcolm Morley said: “News that the Government may be once again delaying the introduction of crucial border checks on goods entering the UK is extremely frustrating and is putting the UK’s biosecurity at serious risk of imported diseases like African Swine Fever.
“Government vets are doing an unwavering job to mitigate these threats but without proper border controls from the EU in place, they are effectively doing the job with one hand tied behind their backs. The British Veterinary Association urges the Government to urgently press ahead with introducing the checks or risk the safety and security of our agricultural industry, food security and UK public health.”