Comment: We need common sense solutions to trade stand-offs

By Mark Williams, chief executive, British Egg Industry Council 

After leaving the EU on 31 December and having reached a trade deal on Christmas Eve, pending formal ratification by the EU, hidden barriers to trade have emerged in the form of Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) measures. These measures led to significant problems that have impacted how we import and export live animal products. This is because the UK is now officially a ‘third country’ in the eyes of the EU.

An example of this is the way in which hatching eggs are imported into mainland GB and the SPS measures have affected the export of day-old chicks from one of the three pullet hatcheries in England to the island of Ireland. NI remains within the EU Single Market, which was bitterly opposed by many politicians in Northern Ireland, particularly those in the Democratic Unionist Party, who propped up Theresa May’s and then Boris Johnson’s governments, until the Conservatives won an 80-seat majority in the December 2019 General Election.

The issue being day-old chicks were previously transported in reusable plastic boxes. However, the Export Health Certificate requires these to now be reusable, either cardboard or plastic. This is not just costly, but entirely contrary to the principles of sustainability, and unfathomable that after the UK being a member of the EU for over 40 years that this rule suddenly changes without any real justification or explanation. It could be posited that the EU are making a political point and trying to set an example to those member states who may wish to follow our lead, it is no secret that eurosceptism is on the rise across Europe and that the EU are concerned.

The Pullet Hatcheries and Breeders Association raised these issues to government last autumn and in December wrote to the Prime Minister. More recently, a further letter was sent to the Secretary of State at Defra, requesting the government to urgently seek to address the SPS issues with the EU. We will continue to engage government and parliamentarians until a resolution has been found.

Another significant issue is when a Notifiable Avian Disease emerges. It was the case that when we were in the EU, if a premise became infected then as long as the live birds or products did not originate from within the PZ or SZ, trade would continue. However, the rules have changed, meaning that the whole of GB is now affected and requires government to write to the European Commission seeking regionalisation. This can take time and in the meantime, exports are temporarily blocked as Export Health Certificates are placed on hold.

In terms of eggs, the export of farm seconds has effectively ended due to the requirement for the shell to be marked with the Producer Establishment Number, Class B indicator and ISO code ’GB’. In terms of Class A egg and graded seconds (Class B), if the need should arise for their export, the Lion Code has been amended to require the ISO code ’GB’ to be printed on every shell at the packing centre. We are just finalising a common approach to where ‘GB’ will appear on the side of the shell.

There are also issues associated with the export of melange for pet food manufacture. At the present time, alternative means of disposal are having to be found. The BEIC will continue to work with the UK and the devolved governments to influence and assist policy makers at all levels on the appropriate steps in the interests of the industry and consumers. It is clear that even though our membership of the EU has ended, we must continue to work constructively to find common-sense solutions, agreeable to both sides.

On the bird flu front, the 16-week clock continues to tick and ends at midnight on 4 April in GB and 13 April in NI. Both the BEIC and the government agreed that it was too early to decide to set a date to allow hens outside at the half-way (8 week) point. Instead BEIC requested, and government agreed, that a further review should take place at a meeting on 10 March (12 weeks). By then, we expect the risk level to have fallen enough to allow a date to be set to allow hens outside again. Whilst it is likely that the requirement to house would be removed, the AIPZ will remain in place for some time, to protect poultry flocks against the tail of any infection from our domestic wild birds (on the basis that migratory waterfowl will have started their migratory exit from the UK). Of course, getting birds out before 4 and 13 April, respectively, would obviate the need to label FR packs, something we are seeking to ensure.

We continue to urge all involved in the supply chain to maintain high levels of biosecurity and to remain vigilant during these difficult times.

Last month, the BEIC called on the UK Government to classify those who work in food production and manufacturing as key workers for the second phase of the vaccination programme. However, it seems that our request has gone unanswered. This is disappointing, as recently published data from the Office for National Statistics has shown the mortality rate from Covid-19 is higher among manual workers in processing plants, including food processing, than the working population. However, we welcome the overall progress of the vaccine rollout across the country, with over 33% of the adult population having received their first dose. The Prime Minister recently said he wishes to see the rollout proceed at an even faster pace, as they are the only road back to normality. This is especially true for the food service sector, which has been dramatically impacted by lockdown.

The BEIC has taken part in several meetings with officials at national and devolved level around the UK’s application to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) – countries around the Pacific rim. We have been clear that we welcome new trade opportunities for the UK, but that these opportunities must not come at the expense of our own standards when it comes to farming and food production. This is particularly true of the British egg industry that has among the highest animal welfare standards in the world. We are providing government with the necessary background information on CPTPP members we would be most concerned about. We will continue to work with other farming sector organisations, animal welfare organisations, consumer interest groups, where our interests align on maintaining the UK’s global reputation of high animal welfare and environmental standards, to support producers.

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