Dover Port Health Authority has accused the government of jeopardising food safety with its proposal to move post-Brexit checks on goods to an inspection centre more than 20 miles away from the port.
SPS checks on goods of animal and plant origin arriving through the Short Straits are set to be undertaken at Sevington, Ashford, as part of a wave of upcoming red tape on EU imports.
But with less than two weeks to go before the rules are introduced, Dover port authorities have accused Defra of putting Britain’s biosecurity and public health at risk by moving controls.
DPHA is particularly worried that sending goods to Sevington – part of the Border Target Operating Model, which comes into force on 31 January – will boost the chances of potentially unsafe or illegal goods either accidentally or intentionally entering the UK.
“Without explanation of how this would work operationally, and most significantly how these goods will be controlled during the 22-mile journey from the point of entry at Dover to Sevington, DPHA cannot support Defra’s vision not to operate a products of animal origin (POAO) border control post at Dover,” DPHA said in a statement.
“This is because of the increased risk this presents to GB biosecurity and public health. DPHA remain the Port Health Authority and as such are responsible for ensuring that diseases are mitigated at the point of entry.”
DPHA said Defra had so far been “unable to explain how biosecurity and public health controls will be ‘maintained’ as they have claimed, by moving physical controls away from the border at Dover”.
“Their intention is a bespoke measure, which is not being implemented or suggested at any other UK border, arguably because it would be unsafe to do so.”
A Defra spokesperson said the new Border Target Operating Model would see “a significant reduction in the number of checks required at BCPs”.
Although it had considered maintaining operations at both Dover’s Bastion Point and Sevington, it found the two sites were not necessary to service the anticipated volume of checks, Defra said.
Using both sites would also cost an additional £7m per year, it added. That sum would need to be funded through an increase in the common user charge, the fee traders must pay for each consignment that undergoes physical inspection.
The decision will “ensure our high biosecurity standards are maintained, whilst also reducing operating costs and burdens on traders”, Defra claimed.
It reiterated African swine fever (ASF) safeguard checks would be conducted with Border Force at the point of entry in Dover Port, and that it never intended to move those to Sevington BCPs.
However, industry sources remain worried about the impact of the move to Sevington. They have consistently raised the issue at recent Defra forums designed to prepare traders for the upcoming BTOM rules, The Grocer understands.
“[It] means 22 miles where unchecked – and potentially unsafe/illegal – goods will be freely travelling through GB,” pointed out Denise Rion, head of technical at the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF). “And will they actually reach Sevington and present themselves for checks at all, or will they just divert en route to who knows where?
“With reports such as the unprecedented level of illegal meat arriving at Dover, you can understand why there are such grave concerns,” she added.
Over 57 tonnes of illegally imported pigmeat have been seized at the British border since September 2022, DPHA recently revealed. This includes 5.5 tonnes of illegal meat confiscated over the weekend before Christmas 2023 alone.
“The other point to note is that we believe Sevington won’t be operating on a 24/7 basis,” Rion said – echoing a concern that has been raised by other industry representatives.
“This will obviously impact production schedules as businesses will have to work around those reduced hours.
“It could even mean a reduction in exports to GB particularly products of short shelf life, such as perishable goods, if they are limited to fitting in with the Sevington opening hours,” she warned.
Defra said it was working with key stakeholders, including the Food Standards Agency, to put in place robust operational procedures for goods arriving at Sevington to ensure biosecurity and food safety were not compromised.