Mussels and Brussels

I generally class myself as an optimist, but Brexit has rather soured my thinking, and on this subject at least, I have become a fully paid-up member of the pessimistic society. Let me be clear about this: I did not vote for it!
We had long anticipated problems in getting mussels to our continental customers, but the reality has turned out to be even worse. It is certainly not the “near friction-free” process that was promised.
In an ideal world, we would have sent our last bulk load away in
December, and waited while others picked their way through the mass of paperwork and red tape, and cleared the path for others to follow. But the world isn’t ideal, and Covid-19 got in the way, severely impacting on sales, and stretching our season into the New Year.
This is why, in the first week of January, we attempted to send a trial 10-tonne load of mussels to the Netherlands, to test out the system. This used to be a simple process, with a label on each bag, one official piece of paper from the environmental health officer to accompany it, our own delivery note, and the transport company’s international consignment note. The journey from pier to processor took around 12 hours, and losses were minimal.
This journey was accompanied by 41 different pieces of paper and took 48 hours. It needed agents in the UK, France and the Netherlands, and cost us dear in terms of additional manpower and truck days, fuel to divert to the Border Inspection Post (BIP) in Boulogne-sur-Mer, and stock losses of around 25 percent.
The first issue was the requirement to give the Fish Health Inspectorate five working days’ notice of our harvest, but in reality we usually get just a day or so’s notice from our customers, and the weather often causes us to change this at the last minute. Working 18 miles from port and six miles offshore comes with its own restrictions.
In the event, we were able to give five days’ notice, and received an email to say that the rules were five working days, so they could not attend. Cue the first bout of swearing, followed by a call to the top of the ladder, which swiftly sorted the issue.
The inspectors – one to do the paperwork and one to learn – were concerned because there were a few queenies and sea urchins in the load, which grow naturally on our longlines, whereas the manifest and invoice merely listed mussels. Would this cause French inspectors to turn it back? We would have to wait and see.
Their work complete, the extensive paperwork in English, French and Dutch was signed off, a security seal witnessed on the lorry, and we waved the driver off, several hours late. She was heading to Kent, where two other drivers would transfer the trailer and face the most frustrating journey they had ever undertaken!
There followed a long night. The first phone call in the early hours of the morning informed us that codes generated by the UK agent did not match those expected by Customs & Excise at Border Control. And when a computer says “NO”, everything grinds to a halt. The majority of people exporting in the first week came across the same “teething trouble”. Additional issues were caused by the fish health inspector putting the registration of the lorry leaving Brixham on his forms, instead of that of the cab picking it up in Kent. Cue forms having to be re-done, scanned, and sent back to the agent.
Much discussion and several delays later, our load finally arrived in Boulogne-sur-Mer at 1100, awaiting a vet inspection, and was not released until the following day. Again, it was an issue with paperwork, and the TRACES system which has to be filled in correctly; the agent had not done so. This turned out to be an ongoing problem. The relevant information needs to be input 24 hours in advance of arrival at the BIP, but is not provided by the fish health inspectors until they sign the load off.
Our second load arrived with a mere 10 hour delay, but the process remained stressful and was certainly not hassle-free.
However, we had pioneered the journey, and congratulated ourselves that we knew which issues needed to be worked on to smooth the path in future. And the relevant authorities were willing to work with us.

Now the bad news…
This week everything changed. We received a call from the Shellfish Association of Great Britain, with news that left us speechless, along with everyone who farms in Grade B waters or harvests wild bivalve molluscs.
The European Commission had pointed out that we were breaking the regulations by sending our mussels from Grade B waters to a depuration centre in Europe (depuration involves placing the shellfish in tanks of seawater to purge any microbiological contamination).
“Only bivalve molluscs originating from classified B areas within a Member State or between Member States can enter a depuration centre. This possibility is strictly forbidden for bivalve molluscs originating from third countries, such as the UK,” read the message from Bernard Van Goethem, Deputy Director General for Food Sustainability.
We had always been aware that this was the case for third countries trading with the EU, but had repeatedly been reassured by DEFRA over the past 18 months that we would be allowed to export Grade B mussels as animals for aquaculture purposes, i.e. for relaying, and that they would travel under an Animal Health Export Certificate (AHEC), which essentially shows that they have no shellfish diseases and are suitable for relaying in EU waters.
The AHEC has nothing to do with food safety, and is designed for the import of part grown stock for relaying and on-growing, and not for market sized stock which just needs a few hours in a purification plant.
Under this arrangement, our market-sized mussels are exported to the EU masquerading as part-grown mussels for aquaculture purposes. We always suspected that when we put this “fudged” solution to the test, there was a risk it would not be accepted by the EU.
We have asked DEFRA many times to provide documentary proof that the EU would allow us to use an AHEC as an export document, but have never received that proof in writing, despite many verbal reassurances from them that it would be allowed. This means that either DEFRA has been incompetent, or has purposely misled us, or the EU has changed its mind, or was never asked in the first place. At this stage we do not have an answer, but we are rattling a lot of cages to find out…
Nicki Holmyard is a journalist and shellfish producer