Brexit has left Northern Ireland open to food fraud, an expert warns
According to a leading expert on global food security, Brexit has left Northern Ireland and the UK open to food fraud.
hris Elliott is Professor of Food Safety and Microbiology at Queen’s University in Belfast and founder of the Institute for Global Food Security (IGFS) there.
As the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol rages on, “goods coming into Northern Ireland from Europe are subject to some inspections, but very few,” he said. “There isn’t the same level of rigor as there was before Brexit.”
Many companies have said they like the protocol very much, but their opinion could change if full controls and inspections come with its proper implementation, said Prof Elliott.
Meanwhile, post-Brexit controls around UK imports are even more lax.
“A lot of food coming into the UK from outside the EU actually goes through Europe, particularly through big ports like Rotterdam,” he said.
“When we were part of the EU, that was our first line of defense because everything that came to Rotterdam to be sold on the EU market was subject to controls and inspections.”
This is not the case now as nobody cares what’s in GB bound trucks until they stop and unload in Europe.
And while the EU itself supplies an estimated 30% of the food consumed in the UK, EU exports to the UK have not been subject to controls and inspections since Brexit.
“They wanted to put controls and measures in place, but Jacob Rees-Mogg actually said it would be too expensive,” said Prof. Elliott. “His opinion was, no, we don’t do checks and inspections, let’s just leave that to the industry.
“So, we have these two vulnerabilities. We have food that comes from outside Europe and is not currently controlled in Europe, and European food that is not controlled at all.
“I know these people who cheat and cheat and they just rub their hands to be honest because it’s like unlocking the doors and windows of the country. You can break in anytime now.”
To make matters worse, Brexit is part of a “triple whammy” of threats to food resilience, alongside the pandemic and conflict in Ukraine.
“That means supply chains have changed dramatically,” said Prof. Elliott. “We source things from places we’ve never had to source from before due to availability.”
“Just before Christmas, 22 lorries of meat coming into the UK from Eastern Europe were stopped and of the 22 lorries, 21 contained meat unfit for human consumption,” he said.
“I think that’s just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. It just so happened that the trucks were checked because they were suspicious. Can you imagine how many actually go through the system without being checked and inspected?”
Today, Prof. Elliott is a global leader in food security and has come a long way since his early school days.
“I missed the opportunity to go to a very good school,” he said. “I went to Belfast High School and really didn’t make the best of it. I then had to make up for that with a lot of part-time training.”
After leaving school, he joined the Department of Agriculture’s Veterinary Research Laboratories at Stormont, where his family farming background gave him a natural aptitude for the work.
In the new job, Prof. Elliott was encouraged to get his education back on track.
“The Department of Agriculture has been a phenomenal employer,” he said. “They not only supported me financially by helping me pay the fees, but also gave me a lot of time off to study.”
Over a 12-year period, he spent time at Ulster University and Queen’s night school, Jordanstown and Coleraine campuses.
First, he repeated his high school diploma, worked his way through an ONC in medical laboratory sciences, HNCs in medical laboratory sciences and hematology, a scholarship to the Institute of Medical Laboratory Sciences, a master’s degree in biomedical sciences, and a PhD in veterinary science.
“I did my Ph.D. part-time at Queen’s and continued to work at the Department of Agriculture, but Queen’s contacted me a few years later,” said Prof. Elliott.
Student enrollment at the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences was declining.
“They wanted to start fresh and bring in a few new faces to adapt the education and research programs to something that is more impactful and responsive to the situation we face in terms of productivity, sustainability and food security issues. ” he said.
Prof Elliott joined the new Institute of Agri-Food and Land Use in 2006 but felt Queen’s hadn’t quite gotten the department’s realignment right.
“I suggested that we should be much more global in our approach to food security and not just focus on local issues,” he said, and IGFS was founded in 2013.
IGFS celebrates its 10th anniversary this year and was a great success. It started with a seven-person team and now comprises around 80 academics, 80 principal researchers, more than 100 postdocs and PhD students each, and another 50 administrative and technical staff.
“We now have a facility of about 500 people that is one of the largest food security institutes in the world,” he said.
The establishment of the IGFS coincided with the horsemeat scandal, prompting Prof Elliott to be appointed by the UK Government to lead a review of the integrity and safety of food supply networks.
IGFS has continued this work on a global scale. “We looked at the complexity of the global food supply system and it’s incredibly complicated with multiple steps, products from many different sources and very intricate supply chains,” said Prof. Elliott.
“We’re trying to get an understanding of these supply chains and where the vulnerabilities exist, not only for fraud but also for major food safety issues.
“Then we really focus our efforts on vulnerable spots to find out what’s going on in relation to large food contamination incidents that happen either accidentally or intentionally.”
One of the institute’s current projects is “real scientific detective work” to determine the origin of soy, a controversial commodity widely used in a variety of foods and as feed for livestock.
Food producers want to ensure that their soy is ethically and sustainably sourced, and does not come from, say, deforested areas of Brazil, including its rainforest.
While continuing to lead research into food integrity, Prof. Elliott is semi-retired and no longer involved in administration or teaching at Queen’s.
However, he has continued to expand the global reach of his work with a new role as Chair of the International Joint Research Center on Food Security, covering the ASEAN region of Southeast Asia.
“It’s a huge area for food production, but it’s very badly affected by climate change,” said Prof Elliott.
“We’re working out there to think about how they can continue to produce food amidst all the terrible things that are happening climatically.
“Some of these countries are massive exporters. So if their food production is affected, so are other parts of the world.
“An example of this is that nobody realized how big Ukraine was as a food producing country until suddenly many exports from Ukraine were blocked and this caused devastation in many different parts of the world.”
Science and technology can play a major role in mitigating the impact of climate change on agriculture and food around the world.
“We do things on a global scale, but the Institute’s work is also about supporting the local agri-food industry,” said Prof. Elliott. “What we need to be aware of is that all of this disruption to the global supply system is having an impact on Northern Ireland because we are importing so much of our raw materials here.
“What we are trying to achieve, slowly and gradually, is greater diversification of the types of food that we produce here. I’m a big advocate of, say, growing more oats in Ireland because our climate is pretty good for oats, but we actually import most of the oats that we sell in Northern Ireland from England.
“We need to think about more mixed farming systems and move away from the idea that it has to be beef or milk; Diversification is going to be really important in terms of the long-term sustainability of our agri-food system.”
IGFS’ 10th anniversary isn’t the only milestone for Prof Elliott this year with Antrim Rovers, a non-sectarian sports team he co-founded that turned 25 in April.
“It started as a place for my son and his friends to play in a safe and non-sectarian environment,” he said, but it has since grown into a popular multi-team club and his now eight-year-old grandson is a member.
Prof Elliott said his main hobby is recreating his youth with his grandson, whether that be swimming or looking for rare species of mushrooms in parks around Antrim.
Having had heart surgery just a few months ago, he is training with his son for a series of half marathons to raise funds for Antrim Rovers.
https://www.independent.ie/business/farming/agri-business/agri-food/brexit-has-left-northern-ireland-wide-open-for-food-fraud-warns-expert-42290088.html Brexit has left Northern Ireland open to food fraud, an expert warns