A trial of a system designed to cut red tape for fish exporters after Brexit is to end without an immediate replacement, causing dismay in the salmon industry.
The digitisation of the paper health certificates required for all fish and chilled food being exported to Europe was intended to save traders time and up to £3m on post-Brexit paperwork.
But the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has told those companies involved in a pilot scheme, which has been in place since September 2021, that the scheme will end. It has not mentioned any replacement. “Whilst moving to a fully digital service for export health certificates remains our ambition, we are planning to bring the current exercise to a close,” an official wrote to them.
The industry saw electronic certification as a welcome means of reducing the paperwork for exports, needed since Brexit. Truckloads of chilled fish are required to go through third-country controls in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, which is the main centre for processing fresh fish for sale to supermarkets and restaurants.
It was hoped that the new electronic certification system could be introduced in the UK and then in other ports across Europe, including in Ireland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.
Tavish Scott, the chief executive of Salmon Scotland, said: “We have been informed of a further delay to the introduction of an end-to-end digitised export paperwork system, which leaves salmon companies with ongoing red tape costs which have already been racking up for more than two and a half years.”
The organisation is urging the government to act quickly, given the impact of the extra paperwork and potential delays on perishable foods. It says the salmon industry is worth £760m to the economy but other sectors selling chilled food, including poultry and cheese producers, could have also benefited from the digital certification.
The delays to the digitisation project come just days after it emerged the government was going to delay, for the fifth time, the first phase of paperwork required for EU fresh food producers that export to the UK.
The UK also recently delayed indefinitely the plans to introduce an alternative to the CE safety label with its own UKCA logo in another Brexit climbdown.
While British farm food products have been subjected to public health checks and controls since 2021 in Calais and elsewhere, their EU counterparts have in effect had a free pass, with the equivalent checks in the UK now not being introduced until next year.
The industry fears that online certification will not be in place until at least three years following Brexit coming into force in January 2021. “Even if it is their ‘ambition’ to do something in future, we’re not convinced it will happen this side of the next general election,” said one industry insider.
Scott said: “Farm-raised salmon is the UK’s largest food export, and we need governments to reduce the burden on our sector so that we can grow sustainably, produce more nutritious food, create highly skilled jobs, and boost the Scottish and UK economies.”
He said his members were disappointed with the length of time it was taking to develop the online system and were ready to volunteer to help the government test any new systems it was developing.
A Defra spokesperson said the government was not abandoning the digitisation project. “As has always been the case, the first pilot is ending with the intention of moving into a second phase of delivering fully digitised certification for exports.
“We will begin to test this new and improved service from early 2024, and will draw upon the feedback and insights learnt in the pilots. This will provide the capacity to send digital certificates to the European Union and further afield, delivering more than the original testing programme.”