Imported food controls at the border and inland – TOM and REUL – are we entering unchartered waters?

11 May 2023, Helen Buckingham CEnvH MCIEH, Chartered EHP and regulatory policy expert

International container cargo ship

Helen Buckingham discusses the potential impacts of the draft Border Target Operating Model (TOM) and invites colleagues working with imported food to join the discussion at our dedicated CIEH Conversations event on 17 May.

Helen is a Chartered EHP with thirty years’ experience in local and central government. Working for herself for the last five years, she has written and delivered training for environmental health and trading standards colleagues on imported food controls inland and at the border, on behalf of the Food Standards Agency and the CIEH. Helen writes this personal view for colleagues working in the sector to help draw attention to the two key issues of the moment and provide an opportunity to find out more.

I’m proud to have worked in every specialism that our profession has to offer. During the last five years I’ve met thousands of colleagues working at our borders and inland, doing vital work to protect public and animal health in the imported food landscape. For these colleagues, and with the support of the CIEH, I want to shine the spotlight on this fascinating part of our profession (which doesn’t always get the attention it deserves) and highlight two potential game-changers on the horizon.

Allow me to introduce you to draft Border TOM.

Border TOM is about reducing the complexity of border controls and paperwork, of being more risk-based, of better using data and relying more on trust. Lots of things there which are great. But the more I’ve learned about the detail, the more cautious I’ve become. With only a few days left before the end of the consultation period, I’d welcome your views, too.

The draft Border TOM, being led by the Cabinet Office on behalf of the Government, is six months late, 99 pages long and the consultation period ends on 19 May, after only six weeks, not the usual twelve.

Border TOM was intended to be high level with the detail to arrive later. But I would describe TOM as being mid-level at best, and with many gaps.

TOM is proposing the biggest shake up in border controls for fifty years with potential implications for inland food teams, too.

From October 2023 through to late 2024, the profile of border checks is set to be on a downward trajectory. A new classification system will be applied to goods and many checks will drop out altogether. Data sharing and IT will reduce checks further and a new trusted trader approach (whereby traders run checks themselves in their own premises, away from the border) will remove more. Pilots are promised.

There’s no time for trial and error or contingency planning. It seems like the job itself is going to become more screen-based and potentially less interesting. The potential impact on inland local authority food teams is not mentioned in the document but I foresee ‘mission creep’ here. Especially if biosecurity is compromised and rogue consignments are needed to be chased down and dealt with inland.

Even industry has said it’s all been too quick; that it’s impossible to produce a meaningful consultation response to a document which has so many gaps. They say this is the biggest challenge to import/export business for 50 years (whilst also getting to grips with the requirements of the Windsor Framework and various trade deals), so more time and thought is needed.

TOM also doesn’t address the old issue of EHPs doing more work with products of animal origin at the border. This was formerly prevented by EU rules but is now a possibility. Neither does TOM solve the critical issue of the ‘white van trader’ who drives over on the ferry as a ‘private’ citizen, but acts as a commercial one, bringing meat from unknown and potentially unsafe origins, largely unchallenged. Our border will still be ‘leaky’ if this isn’t solved.

I was optimistic, but I’m now concerned about the practicalities of delivering some of the goals, with some of the language used in describing the new regime, the proposed timescales as well as the consultation approach. Also, I am concerned about the governance, methodology, transparency, funding models and risks to service viability. But TOM keeps moving on, with the first changes due to start in October 2023 and more significant ones in January 2024.

Final Border TOM will be presented in June 2023.

Primary legislation is required to achieve much of it, which will require parliamentary time so there is potential that this process will be delayed.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill (REUL) may well be clogging up some of that parliamentary time. 

However, today, as I finalise this article, REUL is about to change and that’s hopefully going to be good news.

REUL was intending to sunset (wipe out) about 4800 pieces of EU-derived law (which GB had retained following EU Exit) at the end of December 2023, unless each was amended, repealed or replaced by statutory instrument. This was to be a huge task across Government, especially for Defra and the Food Standards Agency who had the lion’s share. The impact on our work in imported/exported food and feed at the border and inland, as well as in numerous other regulatory areas, may have been significant.

Anyone with a regulatory role will have been concerned about what, if anything, might replace them and what we do in the meantime. Business had been critical of the timeline too, given its ongoing challenges in regaining confidence after the pandemic, energy prices and inflation.

As I write this article today, the Government has changed its approach under REUL. The bill will be amended and there will be clarity on which laws are to be revoked at the end of the year – the total will be around 600 instead of the originally planned 4800. Indications are that this will be a win for sectors such as food, environment and animal welfare.

REUL will continue with its goal to end the supremacy of EU law and EU legal principles so we will still need to understand the impact of this on our roles.

The Government’s latest posting on this topic (10 May) makes interesting reading – lots of recycled messages but perhaps more of a steely determination this time around? 

One to watch, I think.

CIEH is keen to support colleagues working with imported food at the border and inland, especially during these key developments in the regulatory landscape and has agreed to host a CIEH Conversation on 17 May at 2pm to discuss draft Border TOM.

This provides us with a good opportunity to share understanding and work together to influence outcomes, where we can and while we still have time.

I hope to Chair the event, covering the basics as well as inviting an experienced panel of EHPs to help with questions. CPD will be provided. I do hope you can join us.

Book your space to attend the event. The consultation period closes on 19 May.

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