Written evidence submitted by the National Farmers’ Union (SME0028)

 

Introduction

 

  1. The NFU welcomes the opportunity to provide evidence to the EFRA Committee inquiry entitled: Seafood and meat exports to the EU. The NFU represents 55,000 members across England and Wales. In addition, we have 20,000 NFU Countryside members with an interest in farming and rural life. However, as we do not represent seafood producers, we have limited our responses to this inquiry to aspects relating to meat exports to the EU only.

 

  1. The NFU is pleased that the UK has successfully maintained duty free access to the EU market as part of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). The (TCA) ensures there are no tariffs and quota free access between UK and EU markets, subject to Rules of Origin requirements. Under the TCA only ‘wholly originating’ goods – in this case meat from animals that are born, reared and slaughtered in the UK – will benefit from tariff free access. Goods produced from UK and EU ingredients only will also be able to benefit from tariff free access, provided the EU materials are further processed to a sufficient degree.  

 

  1. Furthermore, products from the UK that are currently certified with Geographical Indications (GI) status in the EU will automatically be legally protected under a new UK scheme, and will also continue to receive protection in the EU under the current EU scheme. The TCA allows both sides to determine the rules and future direction for their respective GI schemes.

 

  1. As the UK is now classed as a ‘third country’ by the EU, having left the Customs Union and Single Market, we are concerned that, at least in the short-term, this change in status is leading to some confusion and delays at the borders, which could lead to loss of value and increased wastage.

 

  1. The EU’s Single Market rules relating to Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) standards means that some UK animal products (e.g chilled meat preparations and categories of animal by-products) are no longer eligible for sale in the EU. In return, these restrictions, known as the “prohibited and restricted (P&R) list” are currently subject to a UK Government easement which means that EU product continues to be eligible for sale in the UK until the 31st March 2021.

 

  1. The NFU will continue our efforts with the UK Government and the EU to streamline new border procedures to minimise time spent at the border, and will continue to press for the prioritisation of perishable agri-food products through the Short Straights crossings. Should the Committee wish for any further clarification around the NFU’s responses below, please do not hesitate to get in contact.

 

Questions & NFU Responses

 

Question 1. Which seafood and meat exports have been particularly affected by border delays and disruptions since 1 January, and why?

 

  1. We are now regularly hearing news of valuable and voluminous GB agri food exports facing significant disruption en route to customers to the EU. We do note however that we also hear that the situation is improving as time goes on, although the system itself remains bureaucratic and outdated. The following issues, creating disruption, have been experienced since 1st January:

 

7.1  Officials at some EU ports are taking a very stringent approach to assessing paperwork, picking up minor administrative errors (e.g. wrong colour ink OV stamp) as opposed to issues which pose a genuine risk to biosecurity. This has caused delays to shipments, which in turn has led to the rejection of products upon arrival at their destination due to spoilage or late delivery.

 

7.2  EU rules prescribe that 30% of all third country (including the UK) imports of poultry meat and 15% for red meat and pork carcases are subject to physical inspections at the border. Member States capacity for undertaking these checks is limited and this causes very lengthy delays to perishable products.

 

7.3  Additional paperwork is causing major delays for meat processors, with single shipments taking up to nine hours to prepare before leaving the plants.

 

7.4  Hauliers are charging for delays, adding extra cost to exports. There are reports of an increasing and not inconsiderable number of lorries returning to the EU empty. This is adding to cost and is environmentally unsustainable.

 

7.5  Exports of live farm animals (cattle, sheep, pigs and goats) for breeding and slaughter are not possible because no UK facing port in the EU has invested in the necessary facilities i.e. an authorised border control post (BCP).

 

7.6  Export Health Certificates (EHCs) can only be submitted in hard copy and are required in duplicate for different authorities. We know of one example of a vet needing to stamp paperwork 72 times for one consignment. This is very onerous for the limited number of Official Vets (OVs) and adds costs to the export process. The system is also paper-based and must be modernised.

 

7.7  Officials at EU ports have at times taken an inconsistent approach or have taken a slightly different interpretation of the rules to UK officials, this causes delays and confusion for exporters. For example, customs officials at Dutch ports have stated that some British shipments are in breach of Trichinella testing regulations, contravening the agreement it was understood that the UK Government has reached with the European Commission to allow untested products into the EU provided they have been in Controlled Housing Conditions (CHCs). We set this issue out in more detail below.

 

7.8  There have been significant issues to the Groupage scheme, although we must commend the governments for improvements made since the start of the year. For example, these consignments which would be made up of smaller boxes have all had to be offloaded so the labels on every box can be checked, which creates further delays.

 

  1. Pig sector: Many of the UK-EU export issues this year have been experienced by the pig sector, and in particular focus on Trichinella testing and the sector’s ability to export cull sows. For example, we have seen a case where one load of pig-meat that took 20 hours to clear border checks at Calais before ultimately being rejected by the customer in Germany due to the delay and loss of specification.

 

8.1  Confusion and ill-preparedness over Trichinella now means that all pork from animals aged over 5 weeks exported to the EU will have to be tested, or the meat frozen. Industry was led to believe this would not be necessary and processors were not informed or prepared to start testing, this has led to turn backs and destruction of products. This contravenes the agreement the UK Government has reached with the European Commission to allow untested products into the EU provided they have been in Controlled Housing Conditions (CHCs). As a result of this confusion, all pigs over 5 weeks of age will now have to be tested for Trichinella until the Commission reaches a decision on whether to accept our CHCs. We understand that this will not be addressed by the Commission before March at the earliest.

 

8.2  Export disruption has been particularly problematic for cull sows because there is no market for them in the UK (similar to mutton for sheep, cull sows and boars are the parent generation and so the meat tends to be fattier and tougher) and we have no further boning out or processing capability. The vast majority of carcases go to the EU, largely Germany for sausage making. There are only two main cull sow processing plants in the UK, and neither have been taking cull sows at the level the sector needs because of issues with exporting. Most UK breeding farms have sows still remaining on them that should have already gone to slaughter but were held on farm because, due to Covid-related staff absences, plants were either closed or operating at reduced throughput before Christmas. If cull sows cannot go to slaughter, the knock-on effect is that no new productive animals can come onto the farm due to lack of space, which means businesses are even less productive and lose more money.

 

9        Poultry: Like other sectors, poultry exporters are struggling with levels of paperwork required for export, but also specifically with the interpretation of what is required on the Export Health Certificates by the French and Dutch Border Control Posts. Our members have also experienced issues with TRACESthe online system used for health certification and tracking consignments of animals or animal products entering the EU market as well as the issuing of the Common Health Entry Document (CHED).

 

9.1  There have also been some anecdotal instances of inconsistent approaches taken by different border control post officials inspecting trucks carrying fresh chicken/chicken carcasses through the BCP. In some cases, a full check of all the documentation was carried out and some loads rejected for administrative errors. In that situation replacement certificates had to be reissued thereby holding up the loads at the port. Other loads were so delayed that the product had to be sent for rendering. These are not non-compliance issues, but issues of an administrative nature such as the colour of the Official Veterinarian (OV) stamp.

 

9.2  The outbreaks of Avian Influenza in the UK are also causing disruption to export of poultry meat to the EU. As the UK is now a third country member states must now vote on the declared regionalisation, which allows the continued trade in poultry meat from areas of the UK outside of the specified restricted zones located around an outbreak. This voting process is delaying proceedings and in the most recent case (an outbreak in Scotland at Glenrothes) we saw the Dutch BCPs closed to all GB poultry products, which caused significant disruption to the sector as Rotterdam is the main point of entry for our exports of fresh poultry meat.

 

9.3  As a third country the EU will only accept exports from restricted zones once 90 days has elapsed post adequate cleansing and disinfection (C&D) of the infected premises. Before leaving the EU/UK transition period this was a period of 30 days. This is causing frustration for exporters of fresh meat and day-old chicks, nothing has changed our end in process or procedure, so the risk presented by UK exports has not increased. However, the NFU does acknowledge the fact that the UK is applying these same rules and EU products destined for the UK now face the same longer time periods.

 

10              Sheep meat: Lamb and sheep meat processors and exporters have commented on the issues they are currently encountering, including problems with grouped or consolidated loads and the risk of incorrect paperwork, or multiple recipients not correctly filling paperwork, lack of training of staff at the boarders and new costs from increased inspections. This has been quoted by some as an increased cost of around £1.20 per carcass without including extended drivers times. Based on historic trade flows between the UK and EU (3 year average based on 2020, 2019, 2018) this would equate to an extra cost to UK industry of between £3.5m - £5.3m

 

10    Current lamb supplies are tight due to only having availability of old season lamb (i.e. lambs born last year) and high consumer demand in part due to the pandemic with retail volumes growing 15.2% in the 12 weeks to 24th January. Slaughter figures for the months of January and February are usually around 800,000 to 900,000. However, from April onwards when new season lamb (i.e. lambs born this year) becomes available and holidays such as Easter and EID later on in the year increase demand these numbers could rise to over 1 million a month with some months last year such as October seeing heights of 1.3 million lambs slaughtered. This increase in pressure and demand will increase the number of opportunities for export and therefore increase the disruptions and costs due to the changes in export protocols mentioned above. Any opportunity to reduce the friction at the border will help during these busy periods.

 

11    No BCPs for live animals - Live animals moving from GB to the EU will need to enter the EU via an appropriately designated BCP, in order for the animals to be checked. There are currently no BCPs authorised to accept live farm animals (cattle, sheep, goats and pigs) whether for breeding or fattening in channel facing ports in France, Belgium or the Netherlands. The trade in live animals for breeding is an important and valuable one, with UK genetics in high demand. This means that since 1st January this trade has ceased. The NFU has been working to make the commercial case to ports operators to encourage them to invest in facilities with some success. However, government to government contact would help expedite the process and would help to bring all interested parties round one table.

 

Question 2. What impact have delays and non-tariff barriers on seafood and meat exports to the EU had on UK businesses?

 

(a) What are the medium to long-term implications of the non-tariff barriers for UK exporters and supply chains?

 

12    By merely ‘reserving the right’ to diverge, without effective equivalence mechanisms in place, significant extra costs will arise on trade in both directions between the EU and UK that will impact both on business and consumer prices. This is now manifesting itself in the worst-case scenario where businesses are already suffering the negative consequences of divergence through extra trade costs and delays, but without the UK having actually introduced different rules and regulations that might benefit those businesses. We are now regularly hearing news of valuable and voluminous GB agri food exports facing significant disruption en route to customers on the continent, such as the example set out in answer to Question 1. The BMPA report that taking into account the time taken and array of processes (EHCs, customs etc) this increasing the cost per load by £600 -£1000, which equates to an increase of 60% - 100%[1]. The NFU remains concerned that the additional cost to exporting borne by the supply chain will ultimately end up at the producer’s door, either in the form of lower farm gate prices or increased levels of deductions (charges deducted from total payment). There is also a risk that this could translate, depending on a number of other factors such a product and market, into an increase in European consumer prices if this extra cost persists into the long term, and may make GB product less attractive and competitive on the EU market.

 

13    There is a risk that without improvement UK companies will perceive the risk and bureaucracy of exporting as not worth the investment which would be to the detriment of UK farmers and growers in terms of added value, particularly in those sectors where the EU market provides an outlet for products that are not valued on the UK market. 

 

14    Throughout January there were also widely reported problems in supplying supermarkets from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with similar border issues of confusion and delays as those experienced at other UK/EU borders. This is not just an issue for major supermarkets however, but other business types, particularly micro businesses.

 

15    We are concerned that the additional costs and administrative burdens incurred with sourcing UK product in EU and NI markets, will lead to a loss of competitiveness and ultimately to loss of market share. We already hear reports of retailers seeking alternative sources for supply to outlets in NI.

 

Question 3. What steps should the UK Government take to mitigate these issues? What should its short and long-term priorities for action be?

 

16    Ensuring adequate resources: It is essential that there are adequate resources in country and at the border to ensure the necessary formalities and checks are carried out in a timely manner. This would include both official vets and support officers, as well as adequate customs officials and intermediary customs agents to help navigate complex customs rules. APHA resourcing must be considered as part of this. We believe government should monitor whether APHA has sufficient resources for issuing of export certificates given that they have a workload that broaches business as usual exports, avian influenza and now certification for the EU.

 

17    Moreover, we request a ‘one stop shop’ in government for all TCA related issues to promote join-up between the interests of different government departments for the benefit of UK exporters and importers. Similar requests are being made by trade associations of the European Commission.

 

18    Future proofing systems – currently EHCs need to be manually filled in by an OV. As per our answer to question one this can require versions in two or more languages with the same boxes filled/ translated (English, the language of 1st point of arrival and the language of final destination). We understand that this means a single EHC can take at the minimum 30 minutes to fill out. A fully digital system should be developed in conjunction with the EU to future proof the system of exporting and importing and to reduce the administrative burden placed on businesses.

 

19    Clear Communication: The agri-food industry has been inundated with new guidance on aspects of the end of transition period. Much of this has been late in coming and incomplete in nature. Greater efforts must be put in place to ensure full understanding of the breadth of changes businesses need to comply with. Information from HMRC, Defra, FSA and others continues to be fragmented and provided in silos. The NFU sought to address these deficiencies by working in partnership with the agri-food supply chain by supporting and promoting the EUexitfoodhub. This one stop shop web-resource intended to bring all relevant and key information together. It is telling that the most hit part of that site (6 weeks in) is the “where do I start” section.

 

20    The NFU recommends the following improvements to government communications:

 

20.1                      The establishment of a GB - EU trader support service (GB -EU TSS), similar in nature to the TSS in place for GB to NI movements. This call centre resource should focus on building and maintaining relationships with key accounts and ensuring that all new regulatory requirements for trade with the EU are covered, including Customs, VAT, SPS and marketing (certification) requirements in one easily accessible place for users.

 

20.2                      Regular (ideally weekly for the foreseeable) interactive webinar calls to agri-food operators to present and talk through the ‘end to end’ processes required for exporting to the EU.

 

20.3                      Greater official support on the ground, via the development of additional information and advice hubs en route to ports to help ‘check’ preparedness. Whilst still hugely disruptive and costly, it is better for hauliers to be turned back in GB than to ultimately be refused entry and sent back from France. The Kent Access Permit facilitates a self-declaration approach to compliance. Greater oversight and an element of checking from officials will help ensure that turn backs are not down to in-complete or missing information. 

 

20.4                      Improved and visible diplomacy by the UK government in dealing proactively with issues that arise for UK goods entering the EU.

 

13      EU / UK cooperation – The TCA allows for the UK and EU to develop independent SPS rules protecting human, animal and plant health, while also aiming to limit barriers to trade. This includes regular, joint reviews of the SPS border controls on each side to seek further steps to facilitate trade without compromising on biosecurity. The committee structure set up by the TCA on SPS matters should be convened as a matter of urgency as soon as the EU has ratified the TCA. This would allow for greater cooperation between both parties on border issues. The reality is that since the end of the transition period and until such time as the UK Parliament or the EU institutions decide to legislate change, the UK rule book will continue to be aligned to those of the EU. We urge the UK and EU to recognise this unique starting point that exists between both parties and commit to keeping friction as minimal as possible by negotiating advanced equivalence mechanisms that allows for the recognition of each other’s standards to keep trade flowing as freely as possible from administrative burdens.

 

Question 4. How effective and timely will the Government’s proposed £23 million support package for seafood exporters be?

 

21    Not applicable to the NFU’s membership.

 

 

Question 5. How useful and responsive were the guidance and support provided by the Government to business, before and since 1 January?

 

22    The overall government guidance on GB to EU trade was generally of a good standard, but the sheer quantity of individual pieces of guidance was overwhelming for its intended audience and was woefully late in coming for many key issues (such as guidance on Northern Ireland and release of the P&R list to the industry). The webinars run by government helped, but in early versions (i.e before January 2021) were generally siloed into individual issues, rather than taking an end to end view of all new government procedures.

 

23    Information provided by Gov.uk was generally high level and did not provide the reader with applied knowledge of the issues that they were likely to face when going ‘live’. Rather than Gov.uk, the most helpful sources of government guidance for industry were from sector specific pages, such as the plant portal, or the Defra agri-food showcase sites. These sites provided more practical FAQs and case studies of actual trading scenarios. As outlined above, the industry took matters into its own hands by producing and supporting the www.euexitfoodhub.co.uk which has had a significant number of hits in the run up to and beyond the end of the year.

 

24    The guidance produced by government was siloed and rarely provided an ‘over-arching one stop shop’ for all things a trader needed to know. For example separate guidance for SPS checks on POAO, Rules of Origin, Customs and VAT would be produced. The Border Operating Model was the most useful integrated piece of guidance produced, but the focus was largely on UK procedures and not on the things that a trader would need to do and prepare for with their counterparts on the EU side.

 

25    Guidance on movements between GB and NI was very late in being produced. Much of the guidance on NI only arrived in December and then focused on the easements relating to supermarket trade. There should have been much more focus on what agri-food traders required beyond the retailer schemes. The Trader Support Schemes and Movement Assistance Schemes have been helpful additions to the support provided to the industry for movements to NI. The government should replicate such an approach on trade between GB and EU.

 

Question 6. What can the UK learn from other countries who export food to the EU?

 

26    Other countries have negotiated ‘mutual recognition’ and ‘equivalence agreements’ with the EU, for example the New Zealand veterinary agreement, the Swiss Veterinary Agreement and equivalence mechanisms under the Canada – EU deal (CETA). These countries have negotiated outcomes to assist with trade flows. Although it should be noted that for some of these, such as the EFTA countries, this lack of friction at the border comes at the cost of alignment with regulation. The UK is unique compared to most other countries supplying the EU market, in the sense that we are trading with our closest neighbours in high value perishable fresh products and at least for the time being remains aligned in practice with EU rules. Most trading systems and the focus of EU rules in particular is set up for shipments of frozen product arriving in containers. UK agri-food trade centres on perishable product using high speed roll on roll off ferries, where it is not feasible for consignments to sit around waiting for hours or days to clear border procedures. The UK should seek to continue negotiations with the EU to simplify and streamline border procedures, and ensure that the unique nature and special starting point (i.e. regulatory alignment) is taken into consideration when developing mutually beneficial systems for both EU and UK exporters.

 

27    As mentioned in answer to Question 3, the UK can learn from its own lesson of introducing the Trader Support Service (TSS) and Movement Assistance Scheme (MAS) on movement of goods from GB to Northern Ireland. The government should put in place a version of such support schemes for trade between GB and EU, especially focused on small and micro – sized businesses who are not able to easily navigate the complexity of the new requirements, covering SPS, Customs, ROO and VAT.

 

28    The UK should learn from the experience of other countries how best to maximise the export opportunities for quality UK produce. For example, the US, Australia and New Zealand are all major agricultural exporters to the EU and further afield, they are all very active in promoting and developing overseas market access and have a strong diplomatic presence. The NFU supports this approach and would welcome an expansion of the network of UK agri-food counsellors around the world and more generally for an increase in the level of investments in commercial diplomacy and promotion.

 

Question 7. How ready is the UK to introduce checks on food imports from the EU during 2021, and are there lessons to be learnt from the issues that UK exporters have faced?

 

29    It is yet unclear how ready the UK is for additional import requirements later this year. Attention appears to have switched within the civil service to testing systems for 1st April, arguably this is late with less than 2 months to go.

 

30    The NFU has an interest in ensuring that our members can continue to receive critical inputs that are imported to their businesses from the EU, for example veterinary medicines, machinery parts, plants and plant material, live breeding animals, and farm inputs such as fertiliser, seeds and packaging. We have seen disruption for imports of live animals, with checks being in place on imports since 1st January. These relate to day-old chicks, point of lay hens and large farm animals (such as breeding heifers). On the former, there is a lack of preparedness on the EU side for small operators to identify the correct “export” paperwork and procedures required. On the later, new rules relating to driver competence and transporter authorisations have held up consignments. There is a lack of EU drivers that have the correct certificate of competence to ensure that live animal import trade is able to continue at present.

 

31    From 1st July, trade in regulated goods, such as live animals, POAO and regulated plant / plant material, is expected to enter the UK via a Border Control Post (BCP) and will be subject to physical inspections. As yet it is unclear that these facilities will be built and operational in time to meet this deadline.

 

32    We have heard reports of EU officials at Border Control Posts taking varying interpretation of the rules. With consignments held up for lengths of time and subsequent knock-on effect holding up other consignments. It is vital that government works with EU officials on the ground to ensure there is consistent interpretation of the requirements. The NFU expects that the UK Government and border officials will take a similar approach to the EU, in ensuring that goods that are non-compliant with UK law do not enter the UK. Easements should be agreed bilaterally via continued negotiation and cooperation with the EU. Unilateral easements granted by the UK Government on EU imports should only be taken as a last resort when it is felt that all bilateral diplomatic efforts have been extinguished. For example when the government is considering whether to extend the easement allowing EU prohibited and restricted product to enter the GB market after 1st April 2021. 

 

33    The NFU echoes the concern about vet availability which has been expressed by other industry bodies. Whilst we welcome the efforts made by government to expand the number of OVs and support the introduction of the Certification Support Officer (CSO) job role to help OVs in their work, this issue remains an area of concern. It is widely reported that export trade is reduced compared to previous years, meaning that vet capacity may not have been truly tested. On 21st April there will be changes to the EHCs and new EHCs introduced for a wider range of products (e.g. EHCs will now be required for a wider range of composite products) as a result of the implementation of the new EU Animal Health Law. We do not yet know what the new EHCs will look like nor do we know the time it will take to complete. However, we do know that EHCs for composite products take longer to complete due to the complexity of the supply chains involved. Alongside putting further pressure on availability of resource this will also cause the cost of certification to increase. In this regard whilst we welcome the Movement Assistance Scheme (MAS) which is in place to assist with the paperwork and cost of exporting to Northern Ireland, we understand that the scheme does not cover the true cost of certification. We are concerned that is this financial shortfall continues, OVs will look to undertake other operations or will move from certifying exports for the NI market to certifying exports for the EU market, where they can recover the true cost. Northern Ireland remains and integral part of the UK market and the NFU believes the government should ensure GB businesses are not disadvantaged when undertaking what is essentially an intra-UK movement.

 

34    In terms of specific issues with imports since 1st January, again the issues within the pig sector are among the starkest in terms of a rising trade imbalance, as things stand. Processors are desperate to fulfil retailer demand and to offset losses from exports, so they are now importing much cheaper EU pork. The EU price has crashed because Germany, the EU’s second biggest exporter lost its ability to export to China because of its African swine fever (ASF) outbreak. Germany sets the EU pig price which has a knock-on effect to other nations’ producers. Belgium has failed to increase its price despite becoming ASF free as it has struggled to regain lost export trade to China. Ultimately, this has meant there is a lot of cheap EU pork on the market looking for a home. For context, the German pork price in November 2020 was 39p/kg cheaper than 12 months earlier. It is estimated that over 1,000,000 pigs in Germany that should have gone to slaughter are still on farms.

 

35    Clear evidence of this imbalance is demonstrated by significant increases in pork imports from Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany, all of which sent increased volumes to the UK despite the closure of hospitality venues. This cost imbalance has been exacerbated by the disproportionate ease of importing versus exporting since 1st January. Product can be imported into the UK entirely unencumbered with no taxes levied, unlike exports which are subject to an HMRC exit declaration fee, a customs fee for entry declaration (these come to about £100-£200 per EHC) and additional haulier charges for time in delays. The UK Government has also made importation of goods even easier by initiating the Expedited Return Scheme for empty food trucks.

 

February 2021

 

             


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